Released: 29th April
Seen: 5th May
In terms of gay history in film, we tend to focus more on the 70s-80s than almost any other time until now. If you were to ask most writers, it seems like the history of gay culture began around the time of the AIDS crisis and everything has happened in its shadow but that’s not the reality of the situation. Gay people have been a part of society since society became a thing but with few exceptions (like The Favourite or Wilde), we rarely see stories from before the decades mentioned… except in documentaries, which often give us stories of legendary queer people and the stories of their lives back when things were a lot worse than they are now.
A Secret Love tells the life stories of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, a couple who have been together for 72 years. As we follow their lives, which at the time of filming included trying to work out what aged care facility might be best for them, we learn about how they spent decades upon decades hiding their love (hence the title) and sneakily living together from the ’40s through to present day. We get glimpses of the difficulty of trying to keep their relationship a secret, touching upon the dangers they faced and just how close they kept the secret.
There’s so much charm and love in this film that you can tell it was made by the family of the couple who wanted to preserve something they could tell was important. Just getting to see photos of the couple in their youth or their little moments of sweet intimacy are precious and make your heart soar, then promptly sink as you’re reminded that they only really got to come out as a couple not that long ago. It’s a tough thing to really get across and the film does it well, never letting the audience forget that there was a lot of hiding required when this relationship started.
The moments where they tell stories about being together in the ‘40s and how they had to learn to be sneaky, kissing in a sandstorm when no one could see them or tearing names off love letters in case someone else saw them were moments that really made it sink in just how hard it was being gay at that time. The problem is that we don’t really spend as much time talking about their lives as we probably should, this couple has 7 decades of history that charts through so much social upheaval and change in the perception of the LGBT community and we barely get to touch on it. There are certainly some big moments, touching on the classic 3 Articles law is always surprising (for those not in the know, that was a rule where you had to wear at least 3 items of clothing that related to your gender otherwise you got arrested) but there’s so much more that we could talk about, but with a little under 90 minutes to get through everything it feels like there’s a lot of stuff just left out in the dust.
It’s a shame because I am genuinely fascinated by this entire generation of LGBT people who had to keep it a secret due to public pressure, this pressure denied a lot of people the chance to live their truth. I touched on this in my Hollywood review regarding the legendary Rock Hudson, there were just some people who never got the chance to live an open and free life and spending an hour and a half with two of them just seeing them finally free, right at the point in their lives when they have to consider going into a nursing home, is a little confronting. It’s nice having these little moments, including the climax of the film where our happy couple finally get to do something denied to them for years. It all helps paint this picture of lives lived in the shadows and the joy of finally being allowed into the light.
A Secret Love is just heartwarming, letting you fall in love with a couple and slowly letting you learn why they’re so truly special. I genuinely wish they’d done a little more of their backstory as that’s where this film shines brightest but, on the whole, this is just a good charming little film that reminds us that love has always been blind, even when society was just blindly ignorant.