Film Review: A Secret Love

Note: This is film number 17 of my 365 Film Challenge.

This documentary follows Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue, a lesbian couple who have been together since 1947, for much of the time keeping the true nature of their relationship hidden from their family. After over 65 years, they decide to marry and have to deal with the problems of family, ageing, poor health and how to spend their future.


The film shows what life was like for the gay and lesbian community during the ’40s/50s, when there were police raids and bizarre rules about clothing. It makes for a depressing reminder of the difficulties and bigotry that people had to face and the negative consequences of those factors. While there are still problems and intolerance to be overcome today, it is reassuring that things have improved, but this didn’t happen by accident. These rights and freedoms were hard fought, and in Pride Month we need to remember that the fight has to continue to safeguard them.

But this is largely a personal story, a small story of love between two women. While they were forced to live a lie, and feared discovery, there’s something optimistic and reaffirming about the film. When looking at the love, happiness and comfort the two women have brought each other it’s hard to understand why others would hate that idea. That despite their anxieties and secrets they created a happy life for themselves.

That they found a supportive community even in the days when they couldn’t express the true nature of their relationship, and that when they did their family, for the most part, accepted and welcomed the news. There are some family members who didn’t react well, but largely it seems as though Pat and Terry have support, love and acceptance.

It’s a profoundly moving story, as both women discuss their life together and we see them worry about what comes next. The fear of illness, death and loss is a universal theme, and seeing a couple face these things together is heartbreaking at times. The scenes where they debate moving, where family tensions surface and where Pat especially seems beset by fear and doubt are ones that many with older relatives will recognise.

It’s a lovely movie, one that tells a quiet, but important story. It highlights how horribly unfair and cruel society’s treatment of homosexuality was, of the negative impact that it had on people’s lives and the stresses it placed on them. But it also shows that love can survive all of this, that these women like so many others did find a way to create a life for themselves and live happily, but that we should aim for a day when nobody feels the need to hide who they are and who they love.

The use of old photos, home movies and interviews allows the film to tell a full, rich story of these two women and it’s a magnificent piece of understated documentary film making. Wonderful. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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