Love on the Road to '='

(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. Peter Sollett, Writ. Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Photo courtesy eOne Films

It’s crazy to think that the drama of Freeheld takes place only a decade ago. The blond, flowing hair that Julianne Moore sports as New Jersey detective Laurel Hester looks like a wig out of a 1980s music video, and the film really hits an emotional punch when one realizes the immediacy of the film. What begins as a fight in 2005 only really sees the full effect of its results today as Laurel and her partner Stacie (Ellen Page) fight for equality when Laurel undergoes treatment for cancer. Their case, which revolves around Laurel’s pension and her struggle to have it transferred to Stacie upon her death, is a poignant corner of the victory for marriage equality today. This moving love story of is one many on the road to the iconic pink ‘=’ displayed around the world.

Moore is characteristically strong as the tougher, older Laurel, who keeps her sexual orientation undercover on the job. She’s a great cop who puts herself on the line every day, and her instincts tell her that department politics and sexism would never allow a gay woman to advance in the ranks. A straight female cop has it hard enough. Laurel continues to hide her true self at the workplace even after she and Stacie tie the knot with a domestic partnership, and every time Laurel calls Stacie her “roommate” or “sister” the pain on Page’s face gives the audience an emotional pinch to feel the sting of unequal treatment. Page, in her first lead role since coming out in 2014, gives a subtle and moving performance as the younger woman who lives openly but sees her partner deny their love by omission. Love is love, so why can’t Laurel come out and say it circa 2005? Even when she finally comes out to her work partner Dane (Michael Shannon), she briefly distances herself through a perceived act of betrayal.

It’s no wonder that Laurel keeps her life a secret, though, as the attitude of the Old Boys Club, which Freeheld lays on a little thick, makes for an uncomfortable and exclusive workplace. When she submits her request to pass on her pension to Stacie following her diagnosis for stage-four lung cancer, her peers and civil superiors act not with compassion, but with discomfort. Giving benefits to a woman who isn’t a wife is too outside the status quo for some.

The film lets Dane act as a symbol for members outside the LGBTQ community who recognize their complicity in inequality and Freeheld finds a stirring subplot to Laurel and Stacie’s plight. The context of the case is, after all, one of collective awakening and acceptance, and Shannon does a fine job of breaking down the barriers that Dane builds around himself. Empathy, Shannon shows, is a powerful force.

Freeheld surprisingly loses some of its fire as the procedural element of the film escalates and Laurel and Stacie’s plight become a hot-button affair. Some of the big mean freeholders (civil servants unique to New Jersey who preside over civil affairs) are stock characters of Evil White Guys, although Freeheld gives a grain of truth to some of them as they stick to their guns in the name of religion. The case introduces an activist for marriage equality played by a cartoonishly flamboyant Steve Carell, who undercuts the gravitas of the film by making the procedures a circus/sitcom. Whether this man is fact or fiction, Carell’s performance is out of place in an otherwise touching film. On the other hand, Carell’s activist brings along a priest who offers the best zinger about Jesus’s preaching on homosexuality ever uttered in a cinematic court, but the better words are those that Laurel and Stacie struggle to say in the final hours of Laurel’s fight.

When Freeheld keeps its focus on Laurel and Stacie, though, it’s quietly devastating. Freeheld adapts the 2007 Academy Award winning documentary short of the same name by Cynthia Wade (one of the feature’s many producers) and while it doesn’t really bring anything new to the world of films about the LGBTQ movement and the fight for marriage equality, it’s nevertheless an emotional love story.

The power of Freeheld lives in the performances by Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. They’re simply remarkable. Subtle and believable as these two women in love, Moore and Page do justice to Laurel and Stacie by investing the audience in a wonderful celebration of love as Freeheld builds to their landmark victory.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Freeheld is now playing in theatres.