The subject matter of Freeheld is anything but mild – institutionalised and social inequality, shockingly blatant prejudice and injustice, gay rights, terminal illness, death.
It’s drawn from the real–life case of Laurel Hester (played here by Julianne Moore), a New Jersey police lieutenant and a hero to the LGBT community and beyond. Diagnosed with late–stage lung cancer, Hester made national headlines when her application to have her pension benefits granted to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) was refused by the staunchly conservative board of county commissioners (called ‘freeholders’). Through the support of Hester’s stoic police partner (a fine Michael Shannon) and Steve Carell’s almost distracting, yet delightfully flamboyantly gay activist (‘I’m a big, loud, gay Jew”), Hester is ultimately successful in persuading the board to overturn their original decision. While elements of Ron Nyswaner’s script are formulaic and Peter Sollett’s direction occasionally teeters into ‘telemovie of the week’ heavy–handedness,manages to overcome these flaws on the strength of the performances and the premise alone. Moore gives it her all in yet another beautifully natural performance possessed of great dignity and warmth. It’s unfortunate that her character is somewhat relegated to the sidelines for the third act, but perhaps justifiably so given her diminished physical capacity. Page holds her own throughout this, the story that personally inspired the actress to come out after having seen the Oscar–winning 2007 short documentary about Hester’s plight of the same name. Some would call Freeheld bland, while others might suggest it’s understated. The treatment is certainly safe, but there’s a fine line between being respectful to the material, the issues and in this case, the legacy of a deceased, real–life person, and cowering to them in a way that belies the spirit in which their legacy arose.