There is a very good chance you will come away from Freeheld feeling furious, frustrated or both. You might be angry at the blatant inequality that gay people endured just a few short years ago (and let’s face it, continue to experience) OR you may be more in line with the Tony Abbott way of thinking and find yourself furious at the audacity of gay people to expect the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the population OR you might just be frustrated that the film fails to attack the story with any real gusto. This true story follows the fight by terminally ill New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) to ensure her partner Stacey (Ellen Page) has access to her pension upon her death. You see, what seems like a reasonable expectation is far from it in the eyes of the local council who oversee employee entitlements. The fact that Laurel has given some 20 years exemplary service to the county is inconsequential to those who are much more concerned about their own re-election than they are about seeing justice done. Hiding behind an ambiguous regulatory framework, Laurel’s request is denied because pensions can only be paid to the spouse of an employee which, of course, Stacey could never be due to the fact that gay couples were not permitted to marry.
The opening half hour or so focuses on Laurel at work alongside Michael Shannon’s Dane Wells circa 2002, putting herself in harm’s way and earning accolades for her success, all the while taking extreme measures to conceal her sexuality for fear of personal and professional reprisals. When she meets the much younger Stacey, there is an instant rapport and the two quickly become entrenched in a relationship, although one that remains very much hidden from the view of Laurel’s colleagues. Skip forward 12 months and we find Laurel and Stacey still going strong and settling into a house in the suburbs. Just when everything is looking rosy, a cancer diagnosis leaves Laurel debilitated and desperate to ensure Stacey will be looked after into the future. This a very slow-paced affair for much of the running time, with Steve Carell’s introduction as gay marriage campaigner Steven Goldstein bringing some much needed oomph to the piece. Proudly and loudly proclaiming himself a “middle-class, Jewish homosexual from New Jersey”, Goldstein take up the fight for Laurel, coordinating protests and media coverage that also happens to serve his own interests.
The flamboyant Goldstein risks alienating those on both sides of the debate with his desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures approach, but he pares his performance back when his tactics fail to sway the decision-makers. Shannon is great as a cop conflicted by his support for his friend and his own entrenched understandings of sexuality, masculinity and friendship. Wells challenges his colleagues to put aside their own prejudices and he proves to be one of Laurel’s greatest advocates in her battle with the bureaucrats and the inevitability of her illness. Ultimately, it is his work behind the scenes that proves more effective than Goldstein’s grandstanding. There are times when Freeheld veers toward daytime television movie of the week territory as director Peter Sollett (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) keeps the whole thing as chaste and low key as can possibly be and the lack of action will no doubt leave many feeling underwhelmed.
The two leads do their best to rise above a generic script and Sollett’s pedestrian direction and there is no doubt that this story is important as one of the real-life personal accounts that helped pave the way for the recent U.S. High Court ruling that legalised gay marriage. Yes, Freeheld does a service in highlighting the kind of inequality that the gay community endures, but it never really delves into the intricacies of the lives and relationships of the characters in any depth. Whilst this is a somewhat superficial examination of a critically important and undoubtedly emotional series of events that is saved largely by the performances, your reaction to the outcome of the proceedings will probably still depend largely on which side of the political divide you are situated.