'Freeheld' is ponderous but Michael Shannon is a standout

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

Shannon gives a performance of great subtlety and depth as a police officer whose longtime partner, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), tries to sign over her pension benefits to her much younger life partner.

Phil Caruso/Toronto International Film Festival/AP
Julianne Moore, as Laurel Hester, and Ellen Page as Stacie Andree, in a scene from the film, 'Freeheld,' directed by Peter Sollett.

“Freeheld” is certainly timely, though, given its ponderous approach, less than invigorating. Based on Cynthia Wade’s Oscar-winning documentary of the same name, it’s about real-life New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a 23-year veteran of the force, who is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and in 2002 attempts to sign over her pension benefits to her much younger life partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), despite the near-total resistance of the state’s county legislature (whose members are known as freeholders). 

The early scenes, when Laurel and Stacie first meet and court, are charming, and the performers' contrapuntal acting styles here  – Moore is wary and borderline abrasive, Page open-hearted and blunt – ring true. But when the diagnosis arrives, all the predictable buttons are pushed and righteousness reigns. Director Peter Sollett, whose debut feature, “Raising Victor Vargas,” was such a loose-limbed wonder, takes no chances here. The screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, essentially recaps his problem-picture dramaturgy from “Philadelphia,” only less successfully. Steve Carrel shows up in a cameo as LGBT activist Steven Goldstein, a self-proclaimed “big loud gay Jew,” and, as discordant as his performance is, he’s a welcome relief from all the puffed-up posturing. 

I must single out Michael Shannon from the general run of mediocrity.  As Laurel’s long-time police partner, Dane Wells, he gives a performance of great subtlety and depth. Dane is a straight-arrow type whose growing solicitude for Laurel and her predicament is entirely believable and without a trace of cant. Shannon is one of our best actors and makes every movie he appears in, including this one, worth a look. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.)

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