While Julianne Moore needs to find more roles outside of playing older women that audiences passively watch deteriorate physically and mentally, she's so engrossing in such roles and sympathetic without being pitiable that there are no other actresses I would rather see in such roles. After completely commanding the screen with a heartbreaking, true-to-life performance in "Still Alice," Moore returns with an equally devastating performance in "Freeheld," concerning a veteran detective named Laurel Hester, who is dying from terminal lung cancer with her dying wish that her pension be granted to her same-sex partner.
Under New Jersey Domestic Partnership Law, however, this request cannot be granted to state employees and Laurel's appeal is scrapped by the ruling of five state freeholders. As Laurel becomes increasingly sicker, her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), a significantly younger woman who works as a car mechanic, tries to manage her increasingly difficult treatments. Meanwhile, Laurel's longtime detective partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) works to help further Laurel's case by showing up at the town hall meetings where the freeholders are present, in addition to accepting the services of Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), a flamboyant, Jewish gay rights activist who serves as the chairman for Garden State Equality. Goldstein winds up turning the town hall meetings into Kabuki Theater of sorts with loud protesters attempting to change the mind of the five representatives that are holding Laurel and her wishes back.
Moore and Page both give tender performances here, and their time together on-screen makes up some of the film's most endearing moments. They embody everything about a couple that one can easily get the wrong idea about, with their simple request becoming a national issue and spawning all kinds of domestic controversy that ostensibly stems from their desire to be noticed. It's easy to think this in theory, but seeing the film unfold shows that was the furthest thing from their agenda; this is a couple that wanted to live their lives and go through their days without any sort of hassle. They didn't want explosive levels of fame; they just wanted to live their lives and Laurel wanted her love to be taken care of financially when she died.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner is a bit too giddy to get to the meat of Laurel and Stacie's story, which results in a film that too quickly gets wrapped up in legal proceedings and courtroom altercations. Because of this, the true heart and reason for the story - Laurel and Stacie's relationship - gets lost in a sea of colorful theatrics and fragrant displays of powerful monologues and montages. In an age where good, mainstream films about gay rights and gay characters are difficult to come by, it seems unfortunate that "Freeheld" gets so wrapped up in colorful and overextended displays of courtroom drama that is sacrifices its main characters and their relationship with one another.
In addition, "Freeheld" is fairly standard Lifetime Network fare, encapsulated by a daunting and thoroughly overbearing score that hits every emotional scene to the point where pathos are artificially communicated rather than naturally felt. The important, topical subject matter at hand and the unanimously strong performances work to distract from that fact, but the unnatural amount of emotional manipulation prevails. As stated, Moore is a heartbreakingly real character here, and Page, who is by her character's side through every step, while strong in the more emotional scenes, doesn't really have much character to rely on here. The standout alongside Moore is Michael Shannon, who is destined to get the shaft here though he deserves to share the stardom. His seriousness and commitment to Moore's Laurel never feels like the "white knight" hero nor a bid for self-importance. Per usual, Shannon plays a real and fascinating character.
"Freeheld," despite its convincing performances and significant story that really transcends politics to become a human issue, unfortunately shifts its focus on the characters for a perfunctory and predictable rehash of courtroom theatrics that cloak the human interest aspect, as a result. It's the kind of film that really makes you hope the actors got paid more than the screenwriter at hand, for their commitment and talents shine through the unfortunately bland writing.