A lugubrious cloud of mediocrity sets in early in “Freeheld,” a dreary dramatization of a pivotal gay-rights case that paved the way for marriage equality.
As real-life New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester — who, after learning she had Stage 4 lung cancer, petitioned Ocean County political leaders to allow her pension to go to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree — Julianne Moore delivers a wan, oddly cut-off performance. Her remoteness may be in keeping with Hester’s no-nonsense character, who when she met Andree in the early 2000s was deeply closeted at work and elsewhere. Ellen Page gives more spark to Andree, who was 18 years Hester’s junior, but she and Moore are reduced to cogs in a story that starts out drab and formulaic and winds up feeling mawkish and trite.
Peter Sollett directed “Freeheld” from a script by Ron Nyswaner, who is best known for his screenplay for “Philadelphia.” Much like that film, this one earnestly chronicles an important fight for legal and civil rights — which comes most to life, incidentally, through a heterosexual male character whose dawning consciousness provides the story’s highest emotional stakes.
As Hester’s real-life police partner, Dane Wells, Michael Shannon is the most fully realized and sympathetic character in “Freeheld,” his flirtatious feints with Hester giving way to outrage when she finally comes out to him, not because he’s homophobic, but because she didn’t trust him enough to be honest.
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With the exception of Shannon, the rest of the ensemble in “Freeheld” hews to Sollett’s preference for workmanlike literalness and ennobling uplift, rather than depth or complexity. Josh Charles’ portrayal of an ambivalent freeholder, or county official, is suitably pained before he inevitably does the right thing. And Steve Carell’s depiction of gay activist Steven Goldstein looks like a piece of stunt casting. His attempts to infuse his scenes with comedy come off as forced, campy and breathtakingly tone-deaf.
There’s no doubt that Hester and Andree’s story is a stirring one, worthy of respect, celebration and even awe that, 10 years after their exhausting struggle, so much has changed. Those sentiments are telegraphed in “Freeheld” but never thoroughly animated or convincingly engaged. Instead, the women’s struggle is acted out at a safe distance, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to enter the story more intimately than at arm’s length.
Instead, they’re content to give viewers a series of stock moments, staged with little imagination or verve, culminating in a Lifetime-movie moment of bittersweet triumph. The drama that “Freeheld” unsuccessfully strives for ultimately can’t compete with the far-more-compelling facts that inspired it.
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, language, sexuality. Starring: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Steve Carell. Director: Peter Sollett. Running time: 103 minutes. Theater: Flicks.