4 stars
In 2004, a female police officer in the Ocean County police force in New Jersey was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Terrible, of course, but regrettably not an uncommon occurrence. What made her story more devastating than usual, however, was the fact that the officer was declined the right to leave her hard-earned pension, accumulated over 23 years with the force, to her partner.
Why? Because she was a lesbian. Based on Cynthia Wade’s 2007 Oscar-winning short of the same name, Peter Sollett’s (Raising Victor Vargas) dramatic film Freeheld brings the story of the couple’s fight for equality to light once again. Their ensuing battle for justice was caught up with the Campaign for Marriage Equality which, according to Wade, “Made people become unexpected activists when the political suddenly became personal.”

Freeholders are councillors who work for the New Jersey government who are empowered to rule on issues relating to property and finances. In 2005, when Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore - Still Alice) sought to have her case reviewed in the hope that she could name her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page - Juno) as the recipient of her pension, it took a groundswell of equal rights campaigners, fronted by a gay rights activist from New York City, Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell - Foxcatcher), to bring the fight to broad public awareness. It was a battle that divided the ranks and one which resonates to this day. It certainly divided Hester’s work colleagues and, initially, many of them were ambivalent about her situation.

Freeheld builds slowly to become a highly emotional experience. The cast, without exception, are simply sensational. Hester eventually gained the support of her work mates but at first was only aided by her police partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon - 99 Homes), who hadn’t realised she was gay until she settled down with Andree, and who was probably in love with her. Shannon delivers a subdued performance that conveys great dignity and a certain sadness. You can feel his character’s confusion as he comes to terms with the reality of this incredibly tragic situation. Moore plays it straight, with very little make-up, but makes up for it by sporting a Farrah Fawcett-style hairdo which she loses as she undergoes treatment for her cancer (this seems to be the year for actresses to shave their heads, cf. Toni Collette in Miss You Already). She is ably supported by Page’s quietly potent portrayal of Andree, a self-effacing woman who doesn’t want to be going through any of this trauma. Carell is convincing in his role as an extrovert activist who is determined to see justice done.

The two leads could well be contenders for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards in the forthcoming Oscars. If you are interested in civil rights and the gay marriage debate, you’ll want to bear witness to this extraordinary tale of courage. Says screenwriter Nyswaner (Philadelphia), “The themes of Freeheld are universal. We all want to be treated with respect, we all want the right to love the person we choose to love and we all need our communities to acknowledge our work and our relationships. That’s really what Laurel and Stacie fought for with everything they had.”

They should hold a screening for our federal politicians in Canberra and make attendance compulsory!


Previewed at Roadshow Theatre, Sydney on 22 October 2015

Julianne Moore
Ellen Page
Michael Shannon
Steve Carrell

Peter Sollett

Ron Nyswaner



104 minutes

November 5, 2015
Freeheld (2015) on IMDb
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