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Freeheld – Movie Review

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Freeheld – Movie Review by Pat V.

Director: Peter Sollett
Writer: Ron Nyswaner (screenplay)
Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Steve Carell

In the euphoria that accompanied the passing of the Marriage Equality Bill in Ireland last year it is easy to overlook the fact that same-sex marriage did not become legal nationwide in the USA until 26th June 2015, one month after the Irish referendum. Freeheld is based on the true story of one of the milestones that led to that decision, New Jersey Police Officer Laurel Hester’s battle to secure pension benefits for her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Having won an Oscar in 2015 for her portrayal of a brilliant academic struggling with Early-onset Alzheimers in Still Alice, here Julianne Moore plays, Laurel Hester, a strong woman who has fought to achieve success in a very male professional world. Her career is hugely important to her but her fear of being exposed as a lesbian to her colleagues, even to her sympathetic partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon, in rare good guy mode), means that she leads two very separate lives.

She meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a much younger woman who works as a motor mechanic and soon after they fall in love, enter into a Domestic Partnership (like our Civil Partnership) and eventually buy a house together. Life seems perfect until Laurel is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and realises that, on her death, unlike her married colleagues, her partner will not be entitled to her pension benefits and will therefore not be able to keep the house.

The film charts Hester’s battle with the five Republican members of the Ocean County governing body, the Board of Freeholders, who deny her request that her benefits be passed on to her partner. The response of John Kelly, one of the freeholders is to say that to grant it would violate “the sanctity of marriage.” (Where did we hear that before??) Her cause draws national attention and is joined by Steven Goldstein, a loud, gay Jewish activist (played by Steve Carell in Pantomime Dame mode) leader of Garden State Equality, a group fighting for same-sex marriage. From there the film follows fairly predictable lines to its poignant conclusion.

The writer of Freeheld, Ron Nyswaner, was nominated for an Oscar in 1994 for the screenplay of Philadelphia and the similarities between the two film are striking. In both a homosexual couple take on the State in a fight for equal rights and unfortunately in both films Nyswaner substitutes mere sentimentality for true emotion. There is a definite feeling of déjà vu as Hester’s health declines and the time the actual death scene arrives it is a lot less moving than the stills of the real Hester and Andree shown just before the credits.

Moore gives her usual strong performance but has little scope here to show her real worth. She captures Hester’s physical disintegration with brutal candour but her relationship with Andree is riddles with cliché and the sexual aspect is not explored and never seems believable. The course of their relationship is totally predictable and there is little chance of growth for either of the characters. Ironically the only ones who really develop in the course of this film are two straight male characters, Hester’s partner, Dane Wells, who rallies support for her cause and Bryan Kelder (Josh Charles), one of the Freeholders who struggles with his conscience about a decision he feels pressurised into taking.

This film deserves to been seen for the story it tells and to remind us of how slow and reluctant our liberal Western World has been in offering equal rights. It is unfortunate however that the end result is less than the sum of its parts and we can only speculate how much more powerful it would have been with a more imaginative writer and a more courageous director.

 

Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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