Director: Peter Sollett
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
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Based on a true story, this uplifting gay rights drama stars Julianne Moore as Laurel Hester, a New Jersey detective with 23 years of loyal service to the Ocean County Police Department, who’s diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer a year into her relationship with Stacie Andree (Page), a 27-year-old auto mechanic she met at a women’s volleyball game. Although Stacie refuses to accept defeat, Laurel thinks otherwise and makes arrangements for her state pension to go to her partner in the event of her death, only for a panel of five Republican county legislators (or freeholders – hence the title) to deny her request.
However, Laurel is nothing if not a fighter, so she and Stacie mount a legal challenge to the decision, aided by flamboyant gay rights campaigner Steve Goldstein (Carell) and Laurel’s loyal cop partner Dane Wells (Shannon), who harbours his own feelings for her and is initially hurt by the discovery that she kept her relationship with Stacie a secret from both him and the police department. Meanwhile, as Laurel’s condition steadily worsens, the case begins to make national headlines.
Written by Ron Nyswaner (who has form for this sort of thing, having previously written Philadelphia) and directed by Peter Sollett, the film spends significant time on both the characterisation (Laurel’s a brave, loyal, no-nonsense detective; Stacie’s apparently the fastest tire-changer in the state) and the central relationship, so that when the diagnosis arrives, it packs a powerful, emotional punch. Indeed, the structure of the film is roughly divided into love story, cancer weepie and legal battle (with a hint of police procedural thrown in) and it gives each of those elements satisfyingly equal weight.
It’s a little disconcerting to see Moore back in terminal illness mode so soon after her Oscar-winning turn in Still Alice, but she delivers a typically terrific, effectively under-stated performance, sparking strong chemistry with both Page and Shannon and evincing inspirational courage and heart-breaking fragility in the final act. Page is equally good, particularly in the early relationship section.
However, the supporting performances are more of a mixed bag. Shannon is excellent as Wells, playing it relatively straight for once, and displaying touching levels of loyalty and understanding in his scenes with Moore, but Carell’s performance is too high camp, so much so that the effect is unsettling and threatens to knock the film off its stride at a crucial moment. Worse, it feels like his character belongs in a completely different movie, almost as if Carell came in and did his thing and no one had the heart to tell him it wasn’t that sort of film and would he mind toning it down a bit?
On top of that, considering the title of the film, it’s odd that the script fails to explore the freeholders themselves in any depth – Josh Charles is given a handful of individual scenes as the one principled (and out-voted) member of the group, but the others are largely indistinguishable and we have no real sense of the reasons behind their opposition other than cloaking their bigotry in their adherence to “tradition”.
Needless to say, what with the film being based on a true story, there are no real surprises along the way, but the film still pushes all the right buttons, thanks to a sensitive script and a pair of terrific performances from Moore and Page.