Netflix Film Review: A Secret Love

Chris Bolan’s beautiful documentary chronicling his great aunts is so subtle yet so moving, and really one of the best recent movies to hit Netflix after its film festival dates were cancelled (see also The Half Of It).

Actor Bolan (listed as director, co-writer and co-cinematographer) filmed this study of the lives of Terry Donahue and Pat Herschel on and off between 2013 and 2018, and when bigtime producers Ryan Murphy (of GleeAmerican Horror StoryHollywood and much more) and Jason Blum (a heavy-hitting ‘genre movie’ specialist) became involved it meant that Doris Day’s Secret Love could be used over the opening credits, and that this small, personal pic could reach a far wider audience.

And yes, having it bypass cinemas and go straight to Netflix might have initially seemed like a kind of defeat for Bolan and Co, and yet it’s there that their production can be properly celebrated at a time when we could all do with something – anything – to lift us out of the gloom.

Terry and Pat are both in their 80s when they’re introduced in the Illinois home they’ve shared for many, many years, and as they both rather dread leaving the beloved place for a retirement facility this becomes not only a depiction of longtime love but the sad certainty of growing old and beyond. Still, both happily remember their quietly trailblazing lives, as Bolan wheels out the sort of faded Super 8 strips and Polaroids of people long-lost always guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat.

The Canadian Terry travelled to America in the ‘40s to try out for the American Baseball League, an all-female group formed while the men were at war and later depicted in 1992’s A League Of Their Own (and, again, producers Murphy and Blum helped get the rights to use clips from director Penny Marshall’s classic). When Terry and Pat met in 1947 it was love at first sight, no less, and while their relationship had to be carefully hidden, they nevertheless had busy lives and careers (and other partners) as they set up home in Chicago as ‘cousins’.

Their extended family, especially Terry’s niece Diane, seem to have always thought of them as ‘spinster aunts’ and, even half a century later, didn’t quite grasp the fact that they had been a couple all along. And when Terry and Pat decide to come out, realising that the world around them had changed enough for the pair to no longer be afraid, many were surprised. But, come on, how could they not have known? Are families that close really that blind?

Terry is now suffering from Parkinson’s disease and Diane desperately wants her to move back to be with her nearest and dearest in Canada, while Pat is naturally uneasy, remembering the powerful fear they both had of being outed back home. But now that they can no longer look after themselves there’s really no other option, and a sequence where the always-at-loggerheads Diane and Pat clash while Terry looks distressed and baffled in the middle is painfully intimate and vividly real.

When Terry and Pat get hitched now that same-sex marriage is legal, and we watch as these two grand dames recite their vows, it’s hard not to be profoundly moved. And yet, all they’ve been through is a reminder that there are still some out there who would be horrified at the notion of these two making it legal after almost 70 years – people whose hearts obviously aren’t quite “open doors”, as dear old Doris Day would have said.

This film review was originally published on The Adelaide Review and has been posted with permission. 

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