In the mid-2000s, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, policewoman Laurel Hester campaigned for her pension benefits to be made available after her death to her domestic partner Stacie Andree. In Ocean County, New Jersey at the time such benefits would only transfer to the married partner of a policeman or policewoman in the event of a death in service, and of course same-sex marriages were not legal in the state until 2013. Hester’s battle with the authorities – which became something of a gay rights cause célèbre at the time – has already been highlighted by Cynthia Wade in her documentary Freeheld, and Wade is one of the producers of this new dramatisation of events by Peter Sollett. It’s one of those films that I really want to like – it’s well-meaning and its heart is in the right place – but unfortunately I found it to be flat, which is surprising when you consider the talent out in front of the camera. Julianne Moore stars as Hester, while Ellen Page – also a producer – plays Andree. Michael Shannon is Hester’s cop partner and friend Dane Wells, Steve Carell is gay rights campaigner Steven Goldstein and Josh Charles has a chunky supporting role as a member of the county’s chosen board of freeholders. Moore is typically good, even if she has done better work in the last year or so, while Page is someone that I always enjoy watching; it’s a shame, then, that the relationship between their two characters is unconvincing—rarely do you believe that they are actually in love. Still, both successfully guide the movie into tearjerker territory, and Shannon picks up the right frequency even if he has to contend with a number of scenes that feature a bunch of interchangeable macho cops. The big mistake is made by Carell, who chews all the scenery available to him as Garden State activist Goldstein; if he can deliver a point while standing on a chair instead of standing on the floor, then believe me he’ll be standing on that chair quicker than you can say ‘overactor’. I’m not familiar with the campaigning work of Steven Goldstein, so I can’t say for sure whether Carell’s portrayal of the man is wholly innacurate or not, and I guess it doesn’t matter either way, but the fact is the performance jars with the others in the film.
Freeheld is better when he’s not on screen, but not much better, and though there’s enough forward momentum in the quest to get the freeholders of the county to change their minds (five rich heterosexual white men, so it takes a while), the film sags a little when Hester’s condition worsens and Moore’s character takes a backseat to Shannon’s. The other problem is that it’s all over the place at the start: a cold open drops us into the middle of a boardwalk drugs raid that could just as easily have featured in an episode of T.J. Hooker, and there are a few scenes of Hester and Wells investigating a double murder, but the cop action flick stuff just takes focus away from the love story and the political struggle. (It’s also forgotten about for quite a while until a sergeant turns up at the end to mention that the case has been solved.) That all said I’ve certainly seen worse this year already; Freeheld isn’t bad, by any means, just disappointingly average.
Directed by: Peter Sollett.
Written by: Ron Nyswaner.
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Josh Charles.
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti.
Editing: Andrew Mondshein.
Music: Hans Zimmer, Johnny Marr.
Running Time: 103 minutes.