Jeff Nichols is fast becoming the king of quiet drama. If it wasn’t already clear in his former projects, –Mud, Midnight Special, Take Shelter – his latest, Loving, will surely change minds and move hearts. This film – a true story about an interracial relationship that changed the fabric of marriage in America – is completely topical, but is also a bit of a surprise from the director, who has become known for unorthodox dramas. The director imbues the film with his distinct signature throughout, however, making the film quietly poignant and allowing the material to breathe and reveal itself through its story and actors. He brings back a couple of his favorites with Michael Shannon (who has appeared in every last one of Nichols’ films), a masterfully unrecognizable Joel Edgerton, as well as the fine new addition of Ruth Negga in a star-making turn.
Nichols’ film tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple living in Virginia in 1958 directly before the Civil Rights Movement. In order to pass through the red tape (and possible rejection) of their legal marriage in their hometown, Richard takes Mildred up to Washington D.C. to have the marriage officiated. When back at home in Virginia, they are both arrested, with their marriage unrecognized in the state. The judge sentences them to one year in prison, with the jail time to be deferred for 25 years if the couple leaves Virginia and never returns together for the span of that time. The Lovings, though devastated, leave their families and wage a quiet war against the state for the next decade until their case is picked up by the recently established American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an inexperienced lawyer (Nick Kroll), who takes it to the Supreme Court. The rest is history.
Whether his intention or not, Nichols’ timing could not be more apropos. The social and political climate in America today, although further developed and matured than in the 1960s, still seems to be fighting the same fight. Marriage equality, race relations, and basic civil rights are unfortunately still at large and continue to dominate the conversation. In the midst of that darkness, Loving is an unbelievably pleasant and shining reminder of possibility within the justice system and the American people. While lending a sizable ear to these issues, Nichols’ film is never didactic or boastful. His careful focus on love, family, human spirit and intervention take precedence and give the film a transcendent humanist quality.
Although more narratively traditional than Nichols’ past films, Loving shares in their heartfelt through-line. The film could have easily went the way of a sappy Disney feel-good film and could have also taken the route of an ambitiously pretentious studio picture. Loving sticks to an authenticity inherent within its real-life characters, though. The film makes it clear that the Lovings never intended to be part of the bigger civil rights picture and never wanted the spotlight; they simply wanted to be married and raise their family in Virginia. They pined for basic human rights, and Nichols meets the sincerity of that sentiment in his presentation.
Shot anamorphically on 35mm film, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone magnify the simple pastoral beauty of the Virginia countryside while exposing the subtle performances and the deep feeling of the unpretentious love story. Costume designer Erin Benach (Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines) is masterful in visually capturing the quiet tone of the piece while also ceremoniously sticking to the fashion of the era. The costuming is noticeable in its gorgeous understatement and ability to add depth to the film’s romance while never outshining any other creative component.
Likewise, the performances from Edgerton and Negga are nothing short of graceful. Edgerton disappears into Richard (with the help of a blonde dye job) and embodies his no frills persona. A simple man with his sights on the classic American dream (owning land, building a home, living peacefully with freedom), Richard’s character is told through his tender interactions with Mildred and his strong sense of resolve. Edgerton carries Richard’s innate sense of strength while remaining quiet and intimate throughout and serving as a solid emotional support.
Mildred, a woman slightly more outspoken, but still a partner to her husband in the truest sense, is the lightning rod for stirring emotion and inspiring change. Negga’s accompanying performance is appropriately reserved while exuding the complex feeling of the era. Her use of controlled wistful mannerisms nods toward the time period and her quaint surroundings while contributing to the film’s romance. Equally, both Negga and Edgerton demonstrate a calculated awareness of the period piece without falling into nostalgia or camp. Their chemistry is palpable, but is also performed in a realistically private manner, mirroring the audience to the intrusiveness of the government and intolerant public.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
A romance, pastoral, period piece, and historical drama, Jeff Nichols’ Loving naturally executes each contributing genre fully, faithfully, and inconspicuously. The film is lovely in all its every day moments and every day characters that stir emotions in their basic will to live and love. Nichols, along with Stone, Edgerton, and Negga, ground the story in its monumental social and political implications (including a 1967 Supreme Court case that amended the Constitution) and present a film tantamount in its narratively simple, but emotionally poignant impact.