Freeheld

November 5, 2015
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in 'Freeheld' (2015). Photograph: Lionsgate
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in 'Freeheld' (2015). Photograph: Lionsgate

Some actors always get to play the romantic lead, the vamp or the action hero, Julianne Moore should be careful she doesn’t get stuck with another terminal illness. Having gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease in Still Alice, she now gets the chance to experience Stage 4 lung cancer in Freeheld.

Unfortunately she’s really excellent in these roles, able to turn a stoic face to the world while keeping the inner demons at bay. The sheer terror of her predicament will occasionally slip through the mask, but she endures for the sake of her loved ones. It’s easy to proscribe how such a character should act, but hard to play the part convincingly. There are so many cliches and stereotypes associated with the standard Hollywood tear-jerker it takes talent to avoid melodrama.

Moore is Detective Laurel Hester, a tough, experienced cop in Ocean County, New Jersey, who has learnt to conceal her sexual preferences from her workmates. Being a woman is already an obstacle to promotion but being a lesbian is completely out-of-line.

It is only when she meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a little punk about half her age, that Laurel begins to let her guard down. Stacie’s dreams are simple but heartfelt. She wants to live with a woman who loves her. She wants a house in the suburbs and a dog. This comes to pass in quick time. Laurel is even prepared to reveal her secret to her long-term work partner, Dane (Michael Shannon), who is angry to have been kept in the dark for so long. It seems that his own feelings for Laurel have been dashed.

At this point the story takes a sudden swerve as Laurel is diagnosed with cancer and given only a short time to live. Her one-and-only wish is to assign her pension benefits to Stacie, so she will be able to afford the mortgage on the house. When Laurel sends this request to the Ocean County freeholders – New Jersey’s name for a group of elected legislators – she is rebuffed. Despite the hesitations of one member, Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles), the freeholders quickly decide that a lesbian relationship is contrary to the sanctity of marriage and in breach of the legal guidelines.

The rest of the movie is a battle between the stubborn freeholders and Laurel’s growing band of supporters. Chief among the latter is Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), a gay Jewish activist, who sees Laurel’s case as an opportunity to agitate on behalf of same-sex marriage. Every time Steve says “gay marriage”, Laurel replies with “equality”, but they agree, in practical terms, that it comes down to the same thing.

Carell plays Goldstein as a complete caricature – loud, abrasive, camp and devout. One begins to feel thankful for the comic relief because the narrative becomes slightly pedestrian once we enter the County chambers. Moore has little to do in the last part of the film except lie around looking increasingly sick. In her final appearance before the freeholders she has a bald head, and an oxygen tube in her nostrils.

This is all based on a true story that unfolded in 2005, so there is little room for dramatisation. Director, Peter Sollett, plays it safe, giving us just enough romance between Laurel and Stacie, without making it into a great love story. He also resists the temptation to portray the freeholders as outrageous homophobes. They come across as a group of stuffy, small-town dignitaries accustomed to getting their own way. Their continued opposition seems mostly due to the fear of losing face if they reverse a decision.

Most of Sollett’s work as a director has been for television, and this movie has that tradesman-like approach one finds in a TV series. His work is neat, tidy and efficient, but never inspired. The film owes its watchability to the solid performances of Moore, Page and Shannon, with Carell as the joker in the pack. It has been rendered wildly topical because of the ongoing campaigns over gay marriage that have led to reforms in the United States and Ireland, but not yet Australia.

Laurel Hester’s story has already been the subject of a short documentary also called Freeheld, which won an Oscar in 2008. I haven’t seen this film by Cynthia Wade, but it’s hard to imagine that Sollett’s feature adds much to the picture, just as Robert Zemeckis’s recent dramatisation of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre was less gripping than an earlier documentary by James Marsh. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is invariably superior to a fictionalised version of itself.

Freeheld
Directed by Peter Sollett
Written by Ron Nyswaner
Starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Josh Charles
USA, rated M, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th November, 2015.