Set in 2003, Freeheld tells the true story of New Jersey Det. Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) who, after she is diagnosed with cancer, applies to leave her police benefits to her domestic partner, Stacie Andrews (Ellen Page). However, when her request is denied by the local officials, she suddenly finds herself as a spokesperson for gay marriage in a community built on ‘tradition’.
Although we have witnessed Julianne Moore’s incredible ability to bring honesty and reality to virtually any role she plays (including this one), the most surprising revelation is Ellen Page. Here, Page’s performance brings both a strength and frailty to Stacie that would be difficult to balance. Their relationship in the film is easily the strongest and most convincing part of the film and, as a result, there is little doubt that both will be in the midst of the Oscar conversation come next Winter. (Supporting characters such as Michael Shannon’s Officer Dane Wells and Steve Carell’s gay activist, Steven Goldstein, also turn in solid performances as the couple’s friends.)
Backed by the weight of its performances, Freeheld is a stirring film with much to say, putting the question of justice at the very centre of the film. Although Goldstein pushes Laurel to become a spokesperson for gay marriage, her interest lies solely in ‘equality’. In other words, while others are concerned about larger issues on a grander scale, Laurel’s heart always remains grounded on the support and well-being of her domestic partner after she has passed. It is here that Moore’s performance truly keeps the film grounded as opposed to losing its focus on her relationship with Page.
However, if Freeheld does have a flaw, it lies in the script. While very well-written, the film just misses delving into the more complex matters of the issue, especially spiritually. (For example, a priest stepping forward and simply stating that Jesus didn’t say anything on the issue does not really end the conversation as quickly as they’d like to think.) In some ways, by emphasizing the term ‘tradition’, the film over simplifies the conversation in favour of the quest for justice. While I don’t have a problem with this–the film really is centred on the legal battle and Laurel’s quest to support her partner as opposed to the complexities of the issue–it might have made the conversation that much more interesting had they grappled with the topic a little more thoroughly.
In the end, Freeheld accomplishes what it sets out to do and starts a conversation that needs to take place. Placed firmly on the backs of the performances of its lead women, the film engages a controversial issue with passion and grace in its quest for truth.
As Christians, my prayer is that we can do the same.
Rated R (for… mature theme?)
Starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon
d. Peter Sollett
**** (out of five)