As we enter in to the weird territory in the cinematic calendar that is February/March/April, audiences begin to be greeted with a series of film releases that feel very much like they do not fit in to the category of awards season contender or big summer blockbuster. One such film that has found itself stuck in this no man’s land of film scheduling is Freeheld, a film that on the surface looks to tick every single awards season box, but in actuality falls rather short of the standards it wants to meet and the intentions that it has.
Based on true events from the early 2000s, Freeheld tells the story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a real respected and regarded New Jersey cop who begins a groundbreaking fight for government rule change when after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, finds she cannot transfer her pension benefits to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) because they are in a lesbian relationship rather then a heterosexual one. With a stellar cast and an inspiring, emotional story to tell, one would think that Freeheld would join the ranks of classics like Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae and Milk, but unfortunately, despite what feels like the very best intentions from all involved, there is just something about the film that does not quite work. The two fold narrative shows us both the blossoming love story between the two women and the subsequent descent in to tragedy and legal battle the ensues after Laurel’s diagnosis, and whilst the drama certainly does play with the viewer’s emotions in the personal scenes between the couple and some of the morality tugging monologues and arguments with the New Jersey board of chosen freeholders, the picture rarely manages to effectively portray anything deeper than surface level empathy for its characters. Though I can often be found here complaining about the indulgent lengths of biopics and films based on true events, running at a brisk 100 minutes, it could be argued that Freeheld would have benefited from fifteen or twenty extra minutes to allow its protagonists to really make a meaningful connection with the audience. Rather than authentic feeling relationship building, we are treated to a generic “moving in together” type montage that belongs in the realm of the soppy romance or the romantic-comedy. Whilst I can understand that a filmmaking choice to keep the women’s partnership on a more low key level might be reflective of the relative secrecy with which they had to live, it just wasn’t effective in building the audience up for an emotional investment in the latter, more tragic and testing portion of the narrative.Though my lists of complaints is, on the balance, longer than my list of compliments, one thing that is absolutely certain is that the story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree alone is moving and inspiring one. The emotional strength and apparent injustice of their fight is definitely a plot that will keep an audience attached and interested, even if the overall product of the finished picture is not quite up the standard that the premise deserves. There is no doubting that Freeheld is a well meaning movie that wants to bring an important moment in the history of LGBT equality to light, but you leave with the feeling that the version presented on screen is not nearly as powerful and moving as the real life event.
There is no questioning the individual talents of both Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, but as Laurel and Stacie respectively, they fail to capture a sense of real chemistry and love that is vital to cementing the heart of the film. With her recent brilliant performance in Still Alice, Moore carries a similar vibe of portraying a woman met with personal tragedy at a premature age, but whilst her Oscar wining role as the professor with early on set dementia demanded many different layers, the actresses take on Laurel Hester feels much more two dimensional and less nuanced. She isn’t ‘bad’ by any means, but to say her performance is truly great would be an overstatement. Ellen Page as Laurel’s much younger lover Stacie gives, in my opinion, a much more interesting performance. Page effectively displays a generation gap between her self assured sexuality and Laurel’s more ‘traditional’ tendency to keep that aspect of her life private, and though Stacie feels like a much better realised character on the screen, the problem still remains that the two actresses fail to spark up a truly believable connection. The film is padded out with a few high profile supporting performances by Michael Shannon as Laurel’s police partner Dane Wells and Steve Carrell in a scene stealing turn as Garden State Equality founder Steven Goldstein, an over the top gay rights activist who becomes the head cheerleader for Laurel and Stacie’s fight. Ultimately, given the recent stellar track records of all the actors involved, it would be fair to surmise that the fault for the disconnect lays in the subpar scriptwriting and a failure by the filmmakers to inspire and capture their best efforts. The tools were most definitely there, it just feels like they were not properly used.
Overall, Freeheld is a touching drama that due to a fundamental lack of cinematic weight, feels much more like an okay TV movie than a truly important motion picture. Starring a number of my favourites, it was a film that I really wanted to be much better than it turned out to be. The closing credits roll out over a series of photographs of the real life Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree, and in these brief few moments more emotion fills the screen than in the previous hour and half. For this reason, I would recommend giving the film a pass and going straight to the 2007 Academy Award winning documentary short of the same name.