There is no denying just how relevant and significant the narrative is to Freeheld, being an integral step towards the legalisation of gay marriage in the United States. Lending itself to the silver screen, it’s a notion undermined, persistently, by director Peter Sollett, in what is an all too televisual affair. It’s a feature that gives off the impression it would feel far more at home on the smaller screen.
Set in New Jersey and based entirely on real events, we delve into the life of cop Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), who is considered to be one of the most accomplished police officers in the department, alongside her loyal partner Dane (Michael Shannon). Though it’s her struggle to find a partner in her private life that preoccupies her, until she meets the younger Stacie (Ellen Page) and the pair fall in love and buy an apartment together. Concealing her sexual orientation from the force, it soon becomes public knowledge – when Laurel is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She wants to leave her pension and house to Stacie, but laws state she is unable to do so given they aren’t legally married. The local freeholders are put under much scrutiny to show some compassion to a woman who has served their town for decades – particularly so when gay marriage activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) becomes aware of this case.
Sollett can also be accused of struggling to identify his focus in the early stages. We have superfluous sequences of Laurel at work, catching bad guys – but we don’t need to see this, and you can’t help but feel it’s time that could be better spent exploring the relationship between the two protagonists. Instead that whole element feels somewhat rushed, and as such we haven’t got an emotional investment in their coming together, which proves to be detrimental when the legal battle intensifies. We simply take too long to get to the point, the latter half is gripping at times as we face what appears to be an uphill battle for this couple, but it’s mostly making amends for what is a slow-start. Carell injects some light-relief into proceedings, though almost too much, with a comedically inclined performance that presents too dramatic a change of tone, and feels out of place within this environment.
That said, Moore is terrific, as always, in the lead, and Page matches her counterpart at every turn – but they are let down by a screenplay that doesn’t seem to know what it’s truly studying. It’s a challenge to figure out if this title is about the legal case, or the couple caught up in it all, and without that sense of focus, we find ourselves caught somewhere in-between.