The Struggle to Make the Struggle for Gay Rights Into Compelling Cinema: Freeheld

freeheld

Freeheld
Directed by Peter Sollett
Opens October 2

It is a case perfectly situated to become a flashpoint. A decorated police officer, dying of cancer, wants to leave her pension to a loved one. But because the cop is a lesbian and has a domestic partner instead of a legal spouse, the county’s council of freeholders deny the request. The injustice of this—along with the terrible political optics—turn the case into national news, one cited as a landmark event in the gay rights movement.

This story, previously told in the Oscar-winning documentary short Freeheld, has now been dramatized in a film of the same name, with Julianne Moore as Lieutenant Laurel Hester and Ellen Page as her much younger partner.

While structured around various appeals, the film understands there isn’t much to the case from a procedural point of view. Hester’s treatment gets the blood boiling, but that’s not the same as complexity or drama: the freeholders face unanimous opposition and cave without any legal maneuvering or strategy from Hester’s team (including Steve Carell as a very gay advocate). That’s not suspense; indeed, the only compelling element of the legal material is a freeholder (Josh Charles) who is sympathetic to Hester but is pressured into going along with his colleagues. The film’s most sobering moment is when he makes a moral compromise for political expediency.

Freeheld has more to say about living as a gay cop than dying as one. Knowing that it would add to the gender discrimination she already faces, Hester is not out to any of her fellow officers, including partner Michael Shannon. (The always-great Moore is particularly good here: intriguingly prickly in the early going, while her physical depiction of cancer suffering is unsurprisingly powerful.) The film spends an unexpected amount of time with a drug investigation, a bit of narrative misdirection that pays off when the diagnosis arrives. Characters in these kinds of movies always seem to be bracing themselves for unexpected news, but director Peter Sollett plays on the stomach-lurch of lives being interrupted.

Figures like Hester are so easily made icons that Freeheld’s greatest service is to keep her defiantly human. As history, it offers little insight or drama, but as a portrait, it does justice to its subject.

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