Julianne Moore gives her all as a dying New Jersey detective battling to leave her pension to her partner, played by Ellen Page, but it’s not enough to save Peter Sollett’s fact-based drama from feeling vapid|
by Nigel M Smith, published on Monday, September 16, 2015 - 16:24 BST
Freeheld should have been an important movie. With gay marriage recently made legal in all 50 US states, Peter Sollet’s fact-based drama couldn’t have come at a better time to remind the world how far equality has come in America, and how fresh the fight still is. Instead, Freeheld comes across as shockingly trite.
Based on the Oscar-winning short documentary of the same name, Freeheld stars Julianne Moore as Laurel Hester, a respected New Jersey detective, terrified of being exposed as a lesbian to her colleagues, including her sympathetic partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, in rare good guy mode). She softens up when she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a forthright auto mechanic, who forces her to come out of her shell after the two engage in a romance that leads the pair to enter into a domestic partnership, and eventually move in together.
It’s not long after that Hester is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Andree thinks they can beat it; Hester, knowing better, attempts to sign over her pension benefits to her partner, so Andree can keep their house after she’s gone, only to have the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders refuse to exercise their right to extend her pension to her domestic partner.
Hester’s ensuing case was one of many that led to the recent recognition of same-sex marriage. Her battle for justice should feel vital, but Sollet’s mawkish reenactment, and Ron Nyswaner’s tonally deaf script render the story lifeless.
Moore, as always, gives the project her all, imbuing Hester with a fierce resiliency. Page, in an underwritten role, still manages to be winning, and not get acted off the screen by Moore, who dons a fake-looking Farrah Fawcett-style wig for much of the film.
Their chemistry is undeniable, but unfortunately for the pair, Freeheld doesn’t seem interested in capturing it. Soon after they partner up Nyswaner’s screenplay oddly shifts much of the focus over to Hester’s colleagues, who slowly come to terms with her sexuality, and Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), a flamboyant Garden State LGBT activist who helps the women fight for their cause.
Goldstein - as played by Carell and written by Nyswaner (a long way from his sensitive, Oscar-nominated work for Philadelphia) - is an especial irritant. A garish gay stereotype of comic relief, Goldstein announces himself as a “big loud gay Jew,” at one point confessing to Hester: “Oh honey, I’d marry you, but I wouldn’t know what to do with your vagina.”
His tone deaf characterization, and Sollet’s clear love for the character, upends the strong foundation set by Moore and Page, who become supporting players in their own story for much of Freeheld’s second half. Worse, his hoary comedy detracts completely from the tragic love story that Sollet and Nyswaner seem completely disinterested in.
When Andree takes to the stand, late in the film, to make a passionate plea for her partner’s request, it fails to emotionally register. Such is the tragedy of Freeheld: a film that should feel urgent and of its time, but instead is rendered cliched and dull by Sollet’s amateurish handling of the material.
Rating: 1 out of 5