Freeheld, based on an Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name, features a world-class cast re-enacting an inspirational true story with a civil rights message and protagonist succumbing to cancer. Although the back-patting social justice message and disease-borne path tick the boxes for Oscars attention, they didn’t bring any because the movie is just not very good.
Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is an accomplished police detective who remains in the closet so she can become lieutenant in her conservative New Jersey Ocean County. Hester’s oblivious partner (Michael Shannon) is none-too-subtly implied to have charmed all the other women in the department but can’t escape his unrequited crush on her. Meanwhile she travels large distances to meet other women preserving her cover, on a trip she meets the tomboyish Stacie (Ellen Page), who is very much out of the closet, and as time goes on they buy a house together.
Their happiness is short lived due to a bout of terminal cancer which means that due to their homosexual relationship, Stacie will not be allowed Hester’s pension to keep the house. In a courtroom drama, several characters step up and join the cause including Hester’s macho colleagues on the force and also Steven Goldstein (Steve Carrell in delightful form), whose gayness is as open as his Jewishness.
Freeheld was co-produced by Page, who came out in 2014, and she may have been too close to the subject matter to dispassionately focus on the quality of the filmmaking. Visually the film is bland and flat throughout whilst the relationship drama in the first half of the film is scarcely watchable due to a poor script. The writer (Ron Nyswaner, Philadelphia)’s ethos – who appears to have forgotten the old maxim “show-don’t-tell” – renders the two strong performances adrift in a sea of banality. It seems that the creatives of Freeheld were so intoxicated on their own feelings of righteousness that they tried the bypass the route of well-crafted storytelling and had carte blanche to insult any audience members who require more than didacticism.
Although the film improves in the latter stages, there’s an irony in having a subplot where Stacie believes Hester is being exploited for political ends by the gay rights campaigners; it seems that Freeheld does the exact same thing by sacrificing the humanity and suffering of the characters on an altar of Hollywood message-making.
Freeheld is released nationwide on 19th February 2016.
Watch the trailer for Freeheld here: