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film review

Julianne Moore, left, as Laurel Hester, and Ellen Page, as Stacie Andree, have an easy if not electric chemistry on screen.Phil Caruso

Like the road to hell, the path to banal movies is littered with good intentions. Who, after all, could begrudge the impulse to honour Laurel Hester, a veteran lesbian police lieutenant from Freehold, N.J., who, upon learning she was dying of lung cancer, fought a landmark battle in late 2005 against the county fathers to permit her domestic partner to receive her pension benefits?

Even before its release, Freeheld has had a salutary effect, reportedly inspiring Ellen Page, the actress who plays Hester's life partner, Stacie Andree, to have come out as gay. The real Hester, who spent most of her life hiding her sexuality for fear it would be career-limiting, became an unlikely gay icon when she allowed herself to be filmed in the final months of her life. The resulting 40-minute film, also called Freeheld, won an Oscar for best documentary short and became a touchstone in the battle for marriage equality in the United States.

Arriving as it does months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage last June, the new Freeheld – billed as "inspired by actual events" – reads as a bittersweet tribute rather than a fierce, heart-rending call to arms. Writer Ron Nyswaner, whose screenplay of Philadelphia infused a similar story of a dying gay person with poetic grandeur, offers up a clockwork take on Hester's tale that ticks purposefully from romance to social-justice drama to, finally, a dependable cancer weepie.

Laurel and Stacie meet at a women's amateur volleyball game and, after some early hurdles, – Laurel's closeted ways upset her much younger lover – settle into domestic bliss, complete with walks on the beach, a run-down house made into a happy home, a dog by their side. Homophobia, though, lurks at the edges of their shared paradise: in the sidelong glances of a real estate agent, from thugs on the boardwalk, from Laurel's police colleagues.

When a twinge in her lower torso turns out to be Stage 4 lung cancer, and she discovers the county is defying a state edict that would allow her to assign her pension benefits to Stacie upon her death, Laurel allows herself to become a cause célèbre of a local activist (Steve Carell, colourfully playing the real-life Steven Goldstein, a former rabbinical student with a taste for political theatrics).

Though their cause is just, Freeheld has a passive-aggressiveness that can grate: When Laurel and Stacie decide to make their relationship official – or as official as possible – they travel to a distant county office, where a clerk is momentarily flummoxed by the unusual paperwork. "This domestic partnership thing is new," she explains apologetically. "When people get married, they don't have to go through this whole rigmarole." Shuffling out of the office, Stacie mutters to Laurel, "Happy domestic partnership day."

Page and Julianne Moore, who plays Hester, have an easy if not electric chemistry, but they seem hamstrung by the movie-of-the-week tropes and Peter Sollett's plodding direction. Freeheld already feels like an artifact of a different time. That may be the best tribute to Laurel Hester you could imagine.

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