Director: Jeff Nichols Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton Running Time: 123 minutes
In 1958, white construction worker Richard Loving and his black partner Mildred Jeter travelled from their home of Caroline County, Virginia to get married in Washington D.C. Richard planned to build a house for his pregnant wife a stone’s throw from her family home, but their efforts to make an ordinary life together were obstructed by the very homeland they wish to do so in, as Virginia’s racist “anti-miscegenation” laws see the two arrested, humiliated and shamed, forced by court order to take their marriage out of state or face imprisonment. The Loving’s case against this ruling’s rise to the Supreme Court and the eventual overturning of the anti-miscegenation laws were landmark moments in the ongoing fight for Civil Rights in America, but in Loving, director Jeff Nichols eschews righteous legal drama for a decidedly grounded focus on the marriage at the heart of the matter.
Nichols employs the same measured directorial approach to Loving as he has in previous films such as Midnight Special, retaining a sense of stillness in the images and restraint with the camera throughout. The Loving’s case dragged on for a decade and Nichols’ directing both depicts and demands a patience as their story plays out at a slow pace. Occasionally, the film has little momentum behind it – the family spend years living unhappily in D.C. but doing little about it – but the director is committed to depicting the Lovings as being an ordinary, well, loving couple, with the film stocking up on scenes from their everyday lives. Though the repeated imagery of Richard laying bricks at his job, to the quietly warm scenes of the pair spending time with friends and family, the film returns to the idea, literally and figuratively, of foundations. These people want to build a life where they want and even though they aren’t hurting anyone, the illegal status of their marriage looms ominously over them.
Though the steady-handed approach is preferable to self-important historical drama, the looming nature of the threat in Loving is not without problems. The inherent racism of the situation is kept at arms length. It’s never revealed who in the community informed the authorities about the Loving’s marriage and after the first act, which has antagonistic figures in the form of a prejudiced sheriff and judge, the conflict is carried by the unseen and broad threat of Virginia as a county, which is perhaps accurate but not necessarily cinematic. A scene shows Richard, already uncomfortable with his families high-profile following a picture spread in LIFE Magazine (Michael Shannon waltzing into the film as an affable photographer), get guns and backup after being convinced he was followed home. He wasn’t. Showing restraint with your subject matter is all well and good, but at what point do questions have to be asked about failing to engage with it?
With the film focusing on the perseverence of the Lovings to a borderline fault, it’s thankful that the performances of Joel Edgerton and Oscar-nominated Ruth Negga more than match up. Their relationship comes through mostly not through words but through their movement, through the tenderness with which Edgerton reaches his weathered working hand out to hold Negga’s, in the way they look so much more comfortable in each others arms than at any other moment. Negga had received deserved plaudits for her portrayal of Mildred, showing her gradually developing the strength for this fight. She carries herself so believably, slumped with downcast eyes in the early going, before becoming assertive enough to speak with simple confidence to representatives, lawyers and the press. Though she shines brightest, Edgerton is no-slacker either. Again, his performance is best shown in his physicality, turned-inward and defensive, Edgerton keeps the balance of playing a non-intellectual character in a dignified and sympathetic way, with complicated body language. When people tell Richard he “should have known better”, he sags, simultaneously showing the shame and the hurt confusion of someone who knows he has done nothing wrong. Though Loving is a man of few words, when asked if he has any statement he’d like to give to the court he doesn’t wish to attend, Edgerton delivers his character’s reply and his film’s summary with simple dignity: “Tell the judge I love my wife”.
Loving represents an affirmation rather than an elevation of the talents of Nichols, Negga and Edgerton. Where the portrayal of these significant events lacks some dynamism, the three keep the film rooted in a solid grounding, a strong, persevering marriage. Nichols ability to create a strong sense of place and the connection to that place demonstrated by Edgerton and particularly Negga, ensure Loving‘s place as worthwile viewing.(3.5 / 5)