The rise of public awareness on issues of gay rights over the last decade or so is startling in its intensity and welcome in its effect. Few things have illustrated just how rapidly such progression has been made as Freeheld, a true story based on Cynthia Wade’s Academy Award winning documentary of the same name.
Directed by Peter Sollett (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Raising Victor Vargas) from a screenplay by Academy Award nominee Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), the film tells the true story of Laurel Hester (Academy Award winner Julianne Moore; Still Alice, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) a detective in Ocean County, New Jersey and her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Academy Award nominee Ellen Page; Juno, Inception). The culture of the time forces Laurel to keep her sexuality a secret, even from her partner on the police force Dane Wells (Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon; Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), for fear of being ostracised by her peers and unfairly passed over for promotion.
When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage lung cancer that will most likely prove fatal in 2005, she writes to Ocean County’s freeholders asking that her benefits be assigned to Stacie in the event of her death. Despite the fact that the couple are registered as domestic partners, the board of freeholders decline to honour Laurel’s request, prompting the couple to begin a public campaign against the board with the assistance of a supportive Wells and Steven Goldstein (Academy Award nominee Steve Carell; Foxcatcher, The Office), a marriage equality activist from New York.
Freeheld is a beautiful film, one with a lot of heart that eloquently illustrates the tragedy of its characters, but it drags far too much in the opening half hour. The film, by necessity, spends a lot of time with Laurel and Stacie before the former’s cancer diagnosis to get the audience attached to them, but Sollett struggles to keep it interesting. Nyswaner’s script presents the opening act as a traditional romance, depicting the central couple’s introduction and initial courtship, but it doesn’t work, due in large part to the huge swathes of the relationship that are cut for time.
The film does a poor job in this opening third of presenting its timeline, with scenes that appear to take place months apart from each other. This acceleration is an absolute necessity to get to the crux of the story, but it also saddles the movie with an emotionally distant tone that only resolves itself upon Laurel’s diagnosis.
From that point on the film picks up, and its depiction of the couple’s struggles against the freeholders is equally inspiring and sobering. The five straight, middle-aged, white men on the board of freeholders are not depicted in a positive light, with the exception of Bryan Kelder (two-time Primetime Emmy Award nominee Josh Charles; The Good Wife, Dead Poet’s Society), who provides a bright spot of humanity on the board.
This is perhaps the film’s biggest problem: its depiction of its antagonists (I use the word but for the lack of any other). The four anti-gay board members are a gang of good ol’ boys, a group of men whose first scene involves them hearing of Laurel’s plight and giggling like a bunch of idiots at the idea of a lesbian. I’ve no idea whether these men were truly so cold and callous, but if they were then it’s sickening. Either way, the depiction robs the central issue of some of its weight: when the proponents of an opposing argument are so poorly presented it can be difficult to see them as holding any real power.
The film’s greatest strength though is its heart and its emotion. Laurel is dying, slowly and painfully, scrutinised and analysed by the media and her colleagues. It’s gut wrenching and hard to watch as Moore undergoes a startling physical transformation from the strong and physically capable woman the movie begins with to a wheelchair confined, short of breath woman as the film goes on, but one that never loses her dignity and spirit.
The cast around Moore is equally brilliant, with Page turning in some of the film’s most emotionally raw moments, the criminally underused Charles serving as a voice of compassion in scenes that lack much of it and Carell offering a depiction of Goldstein that is best described as tireless but frustrated, even if he (with a little too much prompting from the script) goes a little broad at times.
Aside from Moore the film’s most valued player is definitely Michael Shannon. The actor turns in one of his best performances here, depicting Wade’s struggle to come to terms with Laurel’s sexuality upon learning of it with unflinching honesty and really shining when he quickly rallies to side Laurel’s against the freeholders.
Freeheld wears its heart on its sleeve, an unabashedly emotional and sentimental film that manages to be both sad and uplifting in equal measure. It underlines the struggles too many LGBT people face, even today, and in so doing it offers a valuable and meaningful experience especially in light of the great strides the gay rights movement has made since the events it depicts. Despite its slow start and questionable presentation of opposing arguments, the film serves as moving viewing for those inclined to accept its message.