Freeheld, and the gay rights it supports isn’t set in the empowering 1980’s era of Pride, or the revolutionary 1969 of Stonewall and Harvey Milk in the late seventies. This is ten years ago and many attitudes remain with issues of inequality still relevant today. Homosexuals achieved civil partnerships and many people felt that was enough; Freeheld proves it was not.
Starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon and Steve Carrell, Freeheld has a cast any filmmaker would dream of. Combined with a story of personal tragedy with political ramifications, you’ll crumble by the time credits roll. The power of Freeheld is in its outstanding cast and revolutionary tale, but it lacks bite and sadly doesn’t truly stand as tall as the police lieutenant it portrays.
Laurel Hester (Moore) is an accomplished and talented cop, fighting the drug gangs of New Jersey, her partner Dane Wells (Shannon) stands by and supports her. She also happens to be gay and, though hiding it at work, it is clear that Laurel simply sees this as a career necessity. Not that her new-found young lover Stacie (Page) agrees. Referred to as a roommate or a loud sister, it is clear that Stacie adores Laurel but is uncomfortable with her professional etiquette. Tragically, though their relationship is blossoming and the two embrace a civil partnership, Laurel is struck down with Stage 4 cancer, where the likelihood of survival is 10%. Obviously, Laurel wants to ensure that her state pension is passed on to her life partner and is shocked to see her request denied. Dane, too, sees this action as a gross insult to Laurel’s 23-year service and vows to fight the decision. Through the press, and the support of gay-rights activists, Laurel comes out to her colleagues and a nation supports her cause. We can only pray that the decision is reversed before Laurel passes, something that seems to get closer by the day.
There are enormous criticisms against Freeheld. It has failed to light up the awards circuit despite early rumours that it could. David Ehrlich, for Time Out, dismissed the film as “a glorified lifetime movie”. It is absolutely clear that Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) has made a sincere and safe movie that’ll support and champion the issues raised, without too much conflict. Julianne Moore, and everyone who supports her likeable lead role, are good guys. The Freeholders are villains until they change their mind. The one young guy amongst the oldies is conflicted about his position and feels bullied into making the wrong decision. There seems to be no need to show the seeds of those conservative perspectives. Even Steve Carrell’s gay Jew, the leader of the supportive activists, is revealed as using Laurel’s case to push his own gay-marriage agenda forward. If Laurel and Stacie were married, this state pension wouldn’t be an issue. In many respects, this remains the wider debate that turns Freeheld into a worldwide story rather than exclusively a personal fight.
But Freeheld is sincere and deeply heartfelt. Lest we forget, these are actual people and the consequences were indeed larger than Laurel and Stacie. Perhaps, the clear-cut, softly-focused shots and perfectly timed moments, reducing you to a blubbering wreck, are good for the soul. It reminds you that you too, are human. Laurel doesn’t need to be anything other than a saint. She represents hard-working, decent folks who simply want equality – something Laurel reminds us of throughout. The fact that a pro-gay story, cheesy or not, is as accessible and mainstream as Freeheld is a credit not a vice. It is an easy-to-watch story, and something that could be watched by parents with their teenage children to stimulate debate. The truth is, the triple-bill of Julianne Moore, Michael Shannon and Ellen Page is powerful, and their performances are personal and relatable. Page and Moore have an exceptional chemistry while Shannon’s staunch, moral police officer is perfectly captured, proving that a man’s man doesn’t have to be a homophobe.
Freeheld is accessible and powerful, leaving you drained in the final reel. Remember, this isn’t a revolutionary story. This is less than ten years ago. It’s a simply-told story, but there is a direct point being made: inequality is rife and, in 2016, we still need to fight for equality. It’s upsetting that we need to be reminded of this.