Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon
Director: Jeff Nichols
Running Time: 127 mins
Synopsis: The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an intimate close knit couple, who face persecution and an uphill battle against the authorities in 1950s America for one simple reason. Richard is a white man and Mildred is a black woman. The case against them will result in major repercussions for them and the entire country.
Portraying love in film is a tricky prospect. Even the most die-hard of romance fans should be able to admit that screen relationships are very rarely tangible if placed in a real life context. No matter the chemistry between the lovers, no matter the writing there is always a degree of unbelievability in the loud declarations of affection or unlikely story turns. Loving excels for focusing so deeply, so simply and so effectively on a couple just simply living. You can see it in their hard gazes at each other, in the soft touches and in the long absences of dialogue between them. They are so happy and content in their love that words are not always necessary, a key relationship fact that is usually overlooked in cinema.
However a 2 hour film of just a couple in love would be evidently very boring, and luckily Loving has a grander story surrounding the central couple. You see there is an issue with this union, Richard (Edgerton) is a white man, and Mildred (Negga) is black. In the tumultuous racial landscape of 50s Virginia this is seen as a disgrace by almost all of the community. Sneaking off to Washington to get married, the happy couple soon find themselves beset in the middle of the night from officers of the law. Dragging them both off to different cells it becomes painful to see the heartache this causes them, particularly as Mildred is heavily pregnant. Finding themselves before a judge who in turn bans them from the state for 25 years. Mildred and Richard are such an unassuming couple, quiet and restrained that they take this horrifically severe punishment in their stride.
Soon enough being apart from their families, and especially for Mildred, becomes too much to bear and they decide to journey back to Virginia despite the consequences. Many years have passed at this point, conveyed beautifully in a melodic montage of small moments of the two of them raising their new kids. Soon enough as the pressure mounts on them and a court case looms, the media starts to take notice, represented here by a lovely little Michael Shannon cameo. A sort of good luck charm for director Jeff Nichols, Shannon has appeared in all of his films, and here he brings a low key charm to his photographer character.
Jeff Nichols is at this point fast becoming one of America’s pre-eminent auteurs. A confident intelligent director who has an ability to bounce through different genres with consummate ease. Who else could go from a big ideas filled sci-fi drama to a subtle largely event free historical romance piece less than a few months apart? Loving represents a intimate calling card to the big leagues. Scripting as well, he conjures woozy images full of light and soul. His insistence on no histrionics or genre cliches is inspiring. In some ways due to the nature of the Lovings themselves who resisted the need to hog the spotlight, but also because Nichols chooses to focus on the couple themselves rather than those around them. The court case, for example, is kept entirely off screen. Relying instead on brief exchanges between the couple and their legal team, although he makes an odd choice in framing these two lawyers as potential untrustworthy scamps which does not pan out. There is no big speech in court, there is no call to arms, the outcome itself is centred only around their reactions. When asked what he would like to say to the judge Richard simply says “tell him I love my wife.” A incredibly moving counteract to the usual cheesy outbursts you’d expect. It is can sometimes be frustrating, a part of you desires to hear the case their defence puts forward, but you admire Nichols convictions. We have history books for that, instead he wants us to see the stress it puts on the couple and in doing so accentuates the power of its message for tolerance.
Jeff Nichols has two big aces in the hole alongside him. His two lead actors. As Richard Joel Edgerton has a wounded grace about him. Non-verbal and his eyes ever searching around him, he gives the impression of a man lacking in strong intelligence, especially combined with his American drawl. But he has a rich vein of strength and a sly smartness about him. It is Ruth Negga who deserves the bulk of the praise though. She is mesmerising throughout. A performance primarily told through her expressive eyes and subtle physicality. Mildred seems easy going and amenable, mainly because she does not wish to cause a fuss, but there is rage underneath. Every so often it boils over, not with a raised voice but a firm grasp on what she desires. The resignation she conveys upon being kept apart from her family is heartbreaking to watch. It is hard not to see why Richard would fall in love with someone so gentle, so strong and just so beautiful. It is the two of them that give the film its heft, without the fall back on manipulative music or crass dialogue, it is on them to showcase the power of its story. Not a story of coloured victory, or righteous indignation but of two people in love, simply and honestly.
Verdict: Low key, low volume and low on incident, but thanks to the immense central performances and Jeff Nichols’ confident direction Loving carries powerful feelings in the loudest possible voice.