Thing is, it's not exactly the love on the screen that's so moving. I didn't thrum with great feeling for the actresses, but I did for the real women whose passions they were attempting to channel — with mannered shyness on the part of Ellen Page, also a producer, and with bald wigs and good-cop warmth by Julianne Moore.
Beneath the clichés of prestige filmmaking beat the hearts of a couple it's a privilege to get to know. (Viewers wanting the story straight up, with less artificial sweetener, are advised to seek out Cynthia Wade's short doc of the same title.) Moore plays New Jersey detective Laurel Hester, a closeted lesbian whose guardedness is chipped away at by new girlfriend Stacie Andree (Page), a mechanic from Pennsylvania who soon moves in with Hester on the Jersey Shore — and chafes that the woman with whom she'll share a domestic partnership prefers their love to be on the down-low. In ’05, Hester is diagnosed with late-stage cancer in her lungs, and she is stunned to discover that even after her 23 years of decorated service, the Board of Freeholders of Ocean County, New Jersey, refuses to let her leave her pension to Andree — a right any legally married county employee would enjoy.
In the early scenes, you have to work with the movie to feel what it's getting at. The scenes of courtship and tentative early connection between Hester and Andree suffer from tonal uncertainty: The moment Andree discovers Hester is a cop is played for the goofy big laughs, with the couple nearly assaulted by Shore lugs whom Hester chases off with her service revolver. The lead performances, meanwhile, feel curiously undetailed, all noble reserve, as if the actresses haven't made these real people their own: Both seem to be honoring rather than inhabiting. Hester's a cop, Andree fixes cars, and their jobs define them so entirely they could be animals in Richard Scarry's Busytown.
Not that Ron Nyswaner's script offers them many opportunities to capture human complexity. The tension in the film's first half lies in Hester's reluctance to admit to the cops on her force that she is gay. That conflict boils down to three lines, exchanged between Page and Moore after Hester tells her longtime co-worker Dane Wells (Michael Shannon) that Andree is her roommate: “Roommates don't sleep in the same bed,” Andree snaps.
“He's my partner.”
“I'm your partner!”
But after a sputtering start that smooshes unconvincing police drama up against a shorthanded romance, Freeheld surges onto two strong and clear narrative tracks: It's a sharp-enough political drama, building to a Lincoln-like public vote, and it's a surprisingly restrained cancer picture, an affecting one that nonetheless doesn't demand that we agonize over each step of the patient's decline.
That's probably because there's no time for the ins and outs of chemo and hospice. The pension case becomes a local and then a national scandal. Steve Carell, who is straight, turns up as the gay activist Steven Goldstein, winning laughs but also almost certainly making some people uncomfortable: Those "Honeys" and "Sweethearts" feel studied and falsely casual, like he's walking in high heels for the first time but pretending it's his thousandth. Strangely, it's Shannon who gets the most dynamic role: His Wells, a small-town cop who once crushed on Hester and now has suddenly become something of an activist himself, gets to make showy dramatic choices. Their adversaries are essentially cartoons, but, seriously: Have you ever argued with someone who is staunchly against gay rights? They are cartoons.
Possibly more troubling is that the film seems to argue that there's only one way to win over the small-minded on issues of human rights: by putting the arguments in the mouths of people exactly like them. Here, the clean-living muckety-mucks of Ocean County are only persuadable by Shannon's cop, which suggests some kind of right-wing equivalent to the left's mania for local food: Here, new ideas about equality must come farm-to-market.
The actresses fare best in the big scenes, the public speeches and the disease-ravaged moments at home. Their final moments together achieve some emotional majesty. Too bad the couple's happier times, lounging with a dog or remodeling their home, play as pat and untextured. But the facts of their eventual triumph and loss remain stirring — as does the fact that, not quite a decade after their having to prove to the local authorities that their bond counted, here that bond is summoned up to our screens for a mass audience that will never doubt it. At the risk of tautology, this movie is made better by the fact that this is the movie that was made.