This real-life story of a lesbian couple's fight for equal rights is fatally sentimentalised

The best moments in a film often don’t happen on screen at all. Think of the twang of satisfaction in The Shawshank Redemption, when you realise Andy DuFresne really isn’t in his cell any more – or the lurch of horror at the end of Memento when the true fate of Leonard Shelby’s wife is revealed.

Those moments stay with us because we reach them ourselves; the films just light the way. The Pixar animator Andrew Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, sums it up best in his storytelling motto: “Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.”

Freeheld is a film that gives you four. It does all the feeling on your behalf, and doesn’t seem particularly bothered if you join in or not. Peter Sollett’s drama is based on the true story of a cancer-stricken police officer, Laurel Hester (played by Julianne Moore), who had to petition the local government for a year in order for her pension to go to her female civil partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) after her death – a benefit available to heterosexual couples as a matter of course.

It’s an old-fashioned tale of small minds being changed in small towns on a small budget – although for a film of shoestring means, its cast is unusually star-laden. In addition to Moore and Page, Michael Shannon plays Hester’s blustery professional partner Dane Wells, while Steve Carell has a supporting role as Steven Goldstein, a flamboyant gay rights campaigner who whirls into town, ready to turn their struggle into a national cause. It’s the kind of heart-on-sleeve stuff Hollywood made more of in the 1970s, right down to Moore’s Farrah Fawcett flicks.

Almost every problem here is rooted in Rob Nyswaner’s pious and condescending script, which denies the cast the kind of grey areas that would allow them to flex their talent. As they’re written, Hester, Andree and their supporters are simply better people than the council’s Brylcreemed stegosaurs, and the couple’s suffering feels as sentimentalised and hollow as their initially hesitant romance. (Nothing here remotely compares to Moore’s complex, fully felt portrayal of early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.)

Julianne Moore with Ellen Page in Freeheld Credit: Rex features

Perhaps worse still, the film loses interest in Hester once cancer and chemotherapy start taking their toll. Moore, gaunt and croaking, might as well be wheeled into the corner with a dust sheet over her head, while Michael Shannon’s character – the only straight man in a story that’s theoretically about gay women – is brought centre-stage. More than a little uncomfortably, he’s repositioned as the film’s true hero, as he persuades the bigots and throwbacks at HQ to lend their support to a progressive cause.

Meanwhile, Carell sashays around cartoonishly, calling everyone sweetheart and firing off camp one-liners (sample: “My name is Steven with a V, as in ‘very gay’”) that mostly land like lead balloons. His character would be the natural choice to set Hester’s struggle in its broader context. But instead, he’s the comic relief – and just another cog in the film’s emotional engine. It’s a story about real people that never once feels real.