Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are great actresses, and they took their roles in Peter Sollett’s Freeheld seriously. They play real-life lesbian couple Laurel Hester, a New Jersey police lieutenant, and her partner, Stacie Andree. It’s a shame the film that housed their solid performances was so lackluster.
The couple get a nice introduction at the beginning of the film, then become background color in their own story. The last quarter unfolds as a courtroom drama rather than an emotionally charged love story between two people whose marriage is cut cruelly short by cancer. That’s what the film should have been. Instead, the second half teeters into caricature and bad punchlines.
Hester is a tough, closeted detective who has worked with the Ocean County Police Department for 23 years. She carries a gun everywhere and is working on becoming a lieutenant, which means keeping her sexuality a secret from her coworkers. She meets the plaid-shirted, out-and-proud, wise-beyond-her-years Stacie Andree, who is 19 years her junior.
It’s great to see Page, who came out last year via an awesome speech at the “Time to THRIVE” conference, take on the role of an out lesbian. Page and Moore’s fully committed performances give their characters genuine onscreen chemistry that holds for the first half of the film. After dating for a year, they become domestic partners and move into a cozy house in the suburbs.
Their happy life is tragically cut short. Checking on a pain in her chest, Hester discovers she has stage four lung cancer. Hardscrabble, no-nonsense Hester, who can read through anyone’s bullshit, faces facts. She’s going to die and Stacie is going to be left behind. She immediately requests that her pension benefits be transferred to her partner upon her death so that Stacie can keep the house.
But the freeholders, a cast of bumbling old white guys who are proud of their traditionalism and think lesbians are gross, deny Laurel’s request several times, unaware that the case will turn into a media frenzy and crucial point in the LGBT rights battle.
The film does disservice to its own cause by painting its villains with a superficial veneer. They are caricatures of antigay lawmakers everywhere, not real people with deeply-held religious beliefs. Because of this, the film fails to go for the jugular. These people really hate lesbians. They really hate all queer people, and their hate is more than an eye for tradition. It’s a systematic, reliigous-fuelled cruelty that gets sorely unexplored and underestimated in the film.
The freedholders squabble around over what to do when a massive tidal wave of protest and media attention is launched against them, a negative publicity tirade led by activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the founder of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey-based activist group that campaigns for LGBT rights.
Goldstein reaches out to Hester, asking to take her case and amplify it as the next battle in the fight for same-sex marriage — which is, of course, what it becomes. But Hester is hardly a campaigner — she even refuses to say “same-sex marriage.” But she realizes Goldstein’s campaign may be her only chance. If it feels like her personal tragedy is being used for a political aim, it is, and the film seems more interested in politics than in her.
Goldstein’s flamboyance wouldn’t be minded if it wasn’t so clearly positioned as comic relief in an otherwise grim film. And the casting of a straight actor whose career is filled with comedy makes it all too clear that we are supposed to laugh at the flaming fag.
Hester withers away and the camera barely notices. Instead, we’re made to focus on laughs from Goldstein and the clueless freeholders and the strong-chinned Dane, Hester’s partner on the force (Michael Shannon), who becomes the most unexpected campaigner for the couple. Everyone who takes over the film’s second half is male — a strange feature in what was promised to be a lesbian love story.
Even as Hester loses her hair and becomes wheelchair-bound, we seem to forget she’s there until the end, when the film overcompensates for its neglect with a speech from Stacie Andree that is moving but nevertheless a last-minute attempt to refocus. Sorry, but we were too busy laughing at the needlessly funny gay man.