FREEHELD. US, 2015. starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Josh Charles, Luke Grimes, Kelly Deadmon, Dennis Boutsikaris, William Sadler. Directed by Peter Sollett. 103 minutes. Rated M (mature themes and coarse language)
The title is intriguing but not really helpful until we have seen the film. It seems to relate to the two central characters, Laurel (Julianne Moore) and Stacie (Ellen Page) and their relationship, and issues of civil equality. But, then, at the meeting of the Ocean County Council, underneath the plaques with the names of the councillors was the title, Freeholders. Ultimately, there is a civil liberties and legislation clash between citizens and Council.
The film has several genres in the plot development.
Freeheld opens as a police investigation drama with touches of the thriller, the career of Laurel, who had been in the Ocean County, New Jersey, police force for over 20 years, working with her partner, Dane (Michael Shannon). We see them in action, in raids, courageous. And we see the authorities congratulating the pair but the Chief looking only at the man, bypassing the woman. We are also shown Laurel doing her research work at home, coming up with leads and the follow through which involves her being dragged along the street holding onto a car, then a bad cop/good cop method where she is able to elicit the information needed. Laurel and Dane get on very well together, he having a crush on her.
After work, Laurel goes to a local gay club. She notices a young woman, Stacie, and joins in conversation, dancing, and they go home together, developing their relationship and, after a year, with Stacie doing garage work (being shown able to change a wheel more quickly than the expert at the garage) and the couple deciding to buy a house and renovate it. It is at this juncture that Dane discovers the truth, is momentarily shocked, but disappointed that she had not confided in him as he had confided personal matters to her.
Michael Shannon is very effective as Dane, portraying a good guy when, as so frequently in films, he can be extraordinarily sinister (as in 99 Homes, made at this time).
Freeheld then develops the theme of gay relationships, friendship, love, intimacy.
But then there is a transition when Laurel complains of a sore nerve and is urged to go to the doctor. She has lung cancer, quite advanced. In 2014, Julianne Moore gave her Oscar-winning performance as Alice, a 50-year-old succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, Still Alice. Here she puts her deepest self into the performance, audiences convinced that she is terminally ill, going through the chemotherapy, accepting the limitations on her lifetime, being helped by the, at first, unbelieving Stacie.
It is here that the film becomes political. Laurel has decided, according to New Jersey legislation of 2005, to leave her pension to Stacey so that she can pay the mortgage on their house and live there. The local council, five male members, the Freeholders, hear the petition presented personally by Laurel and reject it. They offer different reasons, principles about the same-sex relationships, the possibility that this would lead to legislation on same-sex marriage, religious principles and their invoking that this is what the majority of citizens, older, of Ocean County believe in.
A campaigner, Steven Goldstein, suddenly erupts into the film. He is played vividly by Steve Carell, reminding people that he is middle-aged, middle-class, white, Jewish and gay. One of his lines is to remind people that his protests, rounding up followers, placards, slogans, shouting and singing, are “political theatre”. He takes up the cause of Laurel and Stacie even though Laurel will not endorse his campaign for same-sex marriage. What she is after – and she makes two speeches to the council, one when she is very sick – is gender equality.
There are two main approaches to awareness about social issues, campaigns and principles: some take the crusading path, as do the protesters in this film; others take the education path, telling stories, inviting people to step into the shoes of people whose causes are being promoted. This is what Freeheld does. With the expert performances, the modes of storytelling, audiences are invited to step into Laurel’s shoes and walk with her, as a person, in her career, in her sexual orientation, in her partnership, in her illness, in her fight for the issue of her pension going to her partner.
The advantage of this kind of storytelling is that it gives some possible compassion for people whether an audience agrees with them or not.
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released November 12th.