Laurel Hester was a superstar cop in Ocean County, New Jersey – one celebrated female officer among an entirely male force. She was also a closeted lesbian, travelling to Philadelphia to discreetly meet and socialise with other gay women for fear of losing her career. Such a story is not uncommon among gay people, but eventually Laurel’s story became one of the key moments in the fight for equal rights in America.
Freeheld, the based-on-a-true-story drama that shares a name with a 2007 documentary short on the same subject, tells the story of Laurel’s (Julianne Moore) relationship with the younger Stacie Leigh Andree (Ellen Page) and Laurel’s fight, upon learning she had late-stage lung cancer, to have her police pension benefits transferred to Stacie (her documented domestic partner) upon her death. At least, that’s what it’s ostensibly about, but the film can often comes across as somewhat shallow and insincere.
Freeheld’s rushed opening seems to treat Laurel and Stacie’s relationship as simply a set up for the broader political message at the heart of the film. While Moore and Page both give very sincere and heartfelt performances – with Moore once again channelling the greatness she showed in her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice – the film seems more determined to get to the main conflict than explore these people properly. As such, they don’t really come across as three-dimensional figures, but simply ciphers in service of the film’s agenda.
Whether you agree with that agenda or not, it is hard to miss that this film is propaganda. It has its heart in the right place, but at the times there are awkwardly implanted pieces of rhetoric – such as when one councilman (or “freeholder”) uses the phrase “sanctity of marriage” – and cardboard cut-out villains that make the film seem unwilling to explore these issues outside of a black-and-white, good vs. bad dichotomy.
If one were to stow one’s cynicism in a safe place for the duration of the film’s relatively brief runtime, Freeheld does reveal some warm and emotionally gripping performances and a genuinely touching narrative. Along with the two leads, Michael Shannon confirms his place as one of the most reliable dramatic actors around at the moment as Laurel’s partner on the force, Dane, and Steve Carell has a brief, but memorable appearance that offers some heartfelt levity.
Freeheld will make all but the stoniest of hearts burst into tears, purely because it asks us to confront the death of a loved one. Where it does succeed is in igniting compassion, even if the finer points of its rhetoric are often clumsy and misjudged. Possibly the most affecting moment comes at the end of the film when the Hollywood gloss is stripped away and we see photos of the real Laurel and Stacie – scarred by their battle, but very much in love with one another.
Freeheld opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 5.