Friday, 20 November 2015

Movie Review: Freeheld (2015)



I am becoming the very thing that I hate most. I have always maintained that there are a few key things that, hopefully, separate me from the more mainstream film press. Apart from my insistence on not allowing a person’s media enjoyment to reflect on a person’s character (i.e. not calling someone stupid because they like/don’t like something) and making every attempt possible to judge every film as equals, I also wanted to refrain from letting my own personal politics spill into my thoughts on a given film. Well, if you’ve been following me over the last month or so, you’ll know that I’ve been doing a craptastic job of that last one. I’ve been shoe-horning in my views on certain aspects of sexual politics numerous times here, even when it hasn’t been called for. To put it simply, I don’t want to become another Armond White and have my political views be the only thing that dictate how I watch/analyse a film. So, it should help that I’m almost forced to do the same here, given how this film directly deals with certain politically charged matters. I miss when I would just reference random pieces of pop culture for my jokes, rather than have to bring things down so much. Nevertheless, we still have a review to do here. This is Freeheld.

The plot: Upon discovering that she has terminal lung cancer, police officer Laurel (Julianne Moore) wants to make sure her pension benefits go to her domestic partner Stacee (Ellen Page) when she dies. However, the county board refuse to pass on those benefits, as the couple aren’t officially married. With the help of her police partner Dane (Michael Shannon) and outspoken gay activist Steven (Steve Carell), Laurel makes a stand for same-sex couples in order to get the board to change their mind.

Earlier this year, Julianne Moore turned an otherwise mediocre medical drama into one of the most harrowing views of the year with Still Alice. Well, it should come as no surprise that she brings the same level of intensity here, as she portrays every ragged breath amazingly well as her health continues to decline. Alongside her is Ellen Page and, while there are moments where her delivery is a bit stilted, she gets dangerously close to matching Moore in terms of emotional gravity. They make a very good couple together that, thankfully, avoids any moments of gratuitous oversexualizing that some other films centred on lesbian couples fell into (Blue Is The Warmest Colour, anyone?). Michael Shannon does well at playing the well-meaning but initially misunderstanding partner and Steve Carell plays a gay Jewish man in every sense of all those terms, making for equally the best and worst part of the film. Best because, even with how jarringly flamboyant he is, Carell’s energy makes him a ton of fun to watch. Worst because he represents this film’s biggest issue: It over politicizes the issue.

The film starts out by depicting Laurel and Stacee’s relationship, from its awkward beginnings to its cosier moments, which really helps this film because it keeps in mind precisely who the issue will directly affect. However, as the issue starts gaining speed and the rallying begins, the more personal touches are put into the background in response to the grandstanding about the debate itself. Now, don’t get me wrong: This film makes some astoundingly good points when it comes to equal rights, particularly in terms of the “what will the neighbours think?” mentality that prevents people from acting. It may be a wee bit cynical for a film this emotionally driven, but seeing that mindset used for both sides of the argument at least shows an even-handedness on the subject. However, for as good as the political points are, they aren’t good enough to be worth detracting Laurel and Stacee’s side of things. A lack of balance between the emotional and logical aspects of the premise is what ultimately ends up bringing this film down a few pegs… and yet, at the same time, this brings up a staggeringly good point when it comes to the matter of equal rights for same-sex couples.

Now, as someone who well and truly wants to see those rights be made official here in Australia, I’ll admit that I was embroiled in the same-sex marriage debate when it was the hot button political issue not that long ago. But over time, as more people starting throwing in their own biases and beliefs and the issue itself began to get overcast by potential ramifications, even I began to tune out after a while like a lot of other people did. It turned into less a matter of considering who the ultimate decision would end up affecting, and more a matter of needing to make sure that it affected everyone in the right way, regardless of how tangentially connected they are to it. Thankfully, it looks like the film itself is aware of this standpoint. Whenever Laurel and Steven are talking, they are usually discussing what exactly Laurel is fighting for: Steven argues that she is a same-sex marriage advocate, while Laurel simply believes that she is fighting for equality. This is vitally important to the overall discussion because, along the way, people seemed to have forgotten that these two things are not one and the same. Completely equal rights are still a while away from us even now and we have a lot more work to get done for it to happen and, at the end of the day, a marriage certificate is simply a piece of paper. When this film shows Laurel and Stacee getting their civil partnership documents, it isn’t shown as an immensely important moment; if anything, it’s the most downplayed part of the entire film. Between these two scenes, even if it still manages to fall to its own short-sightedness, the film shows a lot of self-awareness about the issue at hand, both in its own context as well as how it has rippled into the events of today.

All in all, I want to berate this film for how it shuffles the main couple away in exchange for debating the core issue; Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are two great actors who make for a remarkably nice couple and seeing more of them would have definitely helped the overall film. However, that doesn’t mean that their emotional contributions are completely worthless, as they do help anchor this film while the rest of the script makes some rather crucial points about the matter of same-sex rights and what exactly it entails. It doesn’t come across as preachy, more that it doesn’t juggle the two sides as well as it could have. I still very much recommend this film, if for nothing more than to see Julianne Moore giving another physically and mentally demanding performance. That, and people who are involved in the debate might learn a thing or two; I know I did. It ranks higher than Burnt, as this doesn’t descend into the kind of melodrama that that film essentially built its script on. However, as a final offering to show how my own personal politics ultimately don’t matter that much, Tom Hardy as Ronnie Kray still made Legend a more engaging film overall.

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