Director: Peter Sollett
Major Players: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon
Out Of Five: 3
I’d known about this one for some time, but kept forgetting the name and couldn’t work out why. Until I saw the film. And then I realised that I simply didn’t understand it, so here’s the explanation bit ….
Within the state of New Jersey, there are 21 counties, and each one has a board of freeholders, aka the county legislature. This was laid down in New Jersey’s constitution of 1776, although the number of actual freeholders varies: in Ocean County, where the film is set, it’s just five. So the title, as far as the story is concerned and, as American audiences will understand, is something of a play on words.
It’s another true story. Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) has been a police officer in Ocean County for over 20 years, taking it all in her stride – drugs busts, murder investigations and just about everything else the job throws at her. But what her colleagues – including partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) – don’t know is that she’s gay. When she meets the much younger Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), she finds the relationship she’s been looking for, they settle down together and register themselves as Domestic Partners. But when Laurel is diagnosed with cancer, she assumes that their legal status means that Stacie will be entitled to her benefits, should the prognosis not be good. The Board Of Freeholders, in charge of pensions, have a different view.
It’s the start of a long battle on a local level that ultimately takes on national and international significance and, as we learn at the end, resulted in a significant change in American law. In July 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage is guaranteed to all Americans, including same sex couples. But it all started in New Jersey in 2005 when the Freeholders rejected that first appeal.
The film is based on a 2007 documentary of the same name and on the same subject. It lasted just 40 minutes and that tells you something about this version. The real meat of it is in the second half, which deals with the campaign, Laurel’s failing health and the relationship between the two women. Much of the first half is taken up with Laurel as a policewoman and eventually meeting Stacie and it feels stretched and strained, at times almost like padding. However, if you take a look at the website for Freeheld the documentary, www.freeheld.com, you’ll see that some of its scenes have been faithfully re-created and that it’s also been more than a little Hollywood-ised. The real Laurel’s baldness is nowhere near as perfect as Julianne Moore’s smooth dome.
The fact – and it is a fact – that Orange County has five Freeholders is perfect from a dramatic perspective. Each one has a single, strong characteristic and it means that one of them can swim against the tide, in the grand tradition of Twelve Angry Men. In this case, he’s Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles, familiar from TV’s The Good Wife) who, despite not liking the original decision, goes along with it but, inevitably, creates the pivotal moment leading to the campaign’s victory. Thankfully, the major roles have more depth, but with one notable exception. Heading up the local action group is Steve Goldstein (Steve Carell), who describes himself as “loud, gay and a Jew”. He’s most certainly all three, constantly wearing his kippah and calling everybody “honey” but, much as he causes a few giggles, he’s little more than a caricature and a gay caricature at that. An odd fit for a film that’s about equal rights for the gay community.
It goes without saying that Julianne Moore suffers beautifully as Laurel, but this is the second film almost on the trot (Seventh Son and Mockingjay Part II came in between) where she’s battled bravely against a disease that we all dread. Here’s it’s cancer, so she goes through radiotherapy and chemo, loses her hair and is eventually wheelchair bound. And she does it with conviction. On the male side of the story is Michael Shannon as her police partner. As solid and straight as they come, he doesn’t have much in the way of imagination, is awkward when confronted with gay issues and finds emotions difficult to cope with. But he still has the strength to back Laurel all the way, even when that means being the only cop in Ocean County openly supporting her. And the consistently impressive Shannon is more than up to being the counterpoint to the women at the heart of the story.
Freeheld aims straight for your tear ducts and hits the mark but, once you’ve realised that, you become a touch resistant. It wears its heart on its sleeve too much – take a look at the wording on the poster – it’s too glossy and, especially in the case of Steve Carell, it goes over the top. True, it’s a ground breaking case, but one that’s been padded out to fit the feature film format and there’s no escaping that. Ultimately, it’s full of good intentions and sincerity, but the fact that they take over make them its downfall.
Freeheld is released in cinemas and online on Friday, 19 February and on DVD on Monday, 22 February. It is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 February.