“Freeheld” is a moving film that reminds us both how far we have come and how hard we still have to fight to protect our rights.
“Freeheld,” which opens Friday, Oct. 9 at Landmark E Street Cinema, is about the real-life struggle of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a decorated but deeply closeted New Jersey police detective, to assign her pension benefits to her domestic partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) after she is diagnosed with terminal Stage IV lung cancer. After the Freeholders (the elected county commissioners for Ocean County) turn down her request, Hester and Andree decide to fight the decision as fiercely as they are fighting the disease.
They are aided by an unlikely duo: Hester’s straight and straight-laced police partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) and gay rights activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), the passionate founder of Garden State Equality. In the end, after a lot of protests, speeches and political wrangling, the Freeholders decide to allow registered domestic partners to be recognized as pension beneficiaries. Hester was present in the courtroom for the final vote, but died the following month.
Peter Sollett (“Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” and “Raising Victor Vargas”) directs with a confident and steady hand. He smoothly blends the movie’s many moods, matching Hester and Andree’s romantic love story with their wrenching medical melodrama, as well as the fascinating dramas of the police squad room, the behind-closed-door battles of the Freeholders and the Goldstein’s brassy activism. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti makes the Jersey shore shine, capturing dreamy sunlit beach scenes, gritty drug busts, boardrooms and hospital rooms, and ordinary domestic life with remarkable flair and style.
Based on the 2007 Academy Award-winning short documentary by Cynthia Wade, the script by openly gay filmmaker Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) is solid, efficient and respectful. He effortlessly condenses the arc of their relationship and court battle (Hester and Andree met in 1999 and Hester died in 2006) into a tight screenplay that honors a heroic struggle without becoming weepy or preachy. Moments of deep emotion are leavened with moments of laughter and scenes of political machinations and the shifting moods are beautifully captured in the surprisingly subtle score by Hans Zimmer.
But, the heart of “Freeheld” is in the fine performances by a generous ensemble cast. Julianne Moore is luminous as the reluctant activist. Her bravery in catching crooks is matched by her bravery in fighting cancer and her passion for justice (for herself and others) is visceral. She embraces the many quirky facets of Hester’s character: her pride in being a decorated detective, her instinct to control and protect Andree, the deep fear that keeps her in the closet, and the insistence that she is fighting for equality and not marriage. Moore’s outstanding acting (and shaved head) may mean another Oscar nomination.
Ellen Page turns in a strong quiet performance as Hester’s younger lover who gets swept up in personal and political passions beyond her control. Her work is limited by the somewhat underwritten character, but she brings a moving raw passion to the role. Page, who also was a producer of the movie, says working on the film influenced her decision to come out.