Freeheld: Film Review
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Director: Peter Sollett
Mixing in disease of the week tele-movie sensibilities, based on a true story vibes with the lightning rod of equal rights gives Freeheld the kind of material that usually brings awards and nominations banging on the door.
Moore stars as Hester, a hard-bitten detective in New Jersey, who's been on the force getting results for most of her life. But she's always been overshadowed and passed over for the work she has done in favour of her partner Dane Wells ( a terrifically stoic and centred Shannon) - even if he does insist on sharing credit where credit's due.
However, when Hester meets a coquettish yet confident Stacie (Page in a strong supporting role), the two end up in a relationship that faces the hardest of tests when Hester gets terminally ill and the state refuses to recognise Stacie's status, meaning none of Hester's pension benefits will pass to her when she dies.
Determined to right the wrong, Hester faces a race against time and against society to ensure equality for Stacie...
Julianne Moore provides another facet of her role from Oscar-winning Still Alice, but manages to imbue her initially guarded detective Laurel Hester with the kind of dignity she's rapidly becoming known for with these types of roles. Complete with gradual physical degradation, Hester remains resolute, a figure fighting for equality rather than a poster girl for gay marriage. Equally, Page manages a softer touch with Stacie, a steady if unshowy presence throughout - and she slightly withers away in the back half of the film.
The relationship between the cops of Michael Shannon and Moore feels realistic and adds a level-headed approach which is welcome. Granted, there are the usual tropes of your button-pushing weepie (montages set to twinkling piano music) but director Sollett just manages to keep it reigned in and more dignified throughout. And that's even despite the addition of flamboyant lawyer and gay marriage crusader Steven Goldstein (Carell who's clearly there to lighten to mood while never detracting from the seriousness of the situation as well as presenting some conflict to Hester and Stacie who just want a quiet life, rather than to be thrust into the limelight).
Less successful are the hints of tension over Hester's insistence on denying Stacie's true place in her life through fears of prejudice - these are carefully seeded very early on but then brutally skirted over in favour of the main storyline and the ailing predicament, which seems part of Freeheld's MO to avoid the cliches of such relationship films and frustrate and delight in equal measure. Also, Hollywood's predilection du jour for true stories continues with final title screens initially replaced with images of those involved, as if to ram home the point and emphasise the facts.
Empowering but occasionally over-milked, Freeheld may push some of the emotional buttons and sporadically hold you at arm's length as it negotiates weepie with justice, but it's to be commended for telling an inspiring story of discrimination, even if it guides the audience through and tells them how to feel rather than that side of it growing organically.