‘Loving’ is one of those important historical dramas about groundbreaking folks who changed America. It’s also an incredibly intimate character study of two simple people uncertain of why their pure love could cause such wild controversy.
The ways the movie stays so small and human make the latest feature from Jeff Nichols (‘Take Shelter’, ‘Midnight Special’) transcend over most efforts in this particularly prestigious genre. This is a tale of people who were incredibly important historically, yet never set out to do anything important. Their lives merely caught up with history and there’s something kind of perfect about that.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia. After an unexpected pregnancy, the pair wed in secret in D.C. and are content to live a simple farm life when local law enforcement bursts into their home in the middle of the night to arrest them. They’re given the choice to spend a year in prison or be banished from the state for 25 years. With a baby on the way, they choose the latter and live hand-to-mouth for years building a family. Eventually, tired of the big city and in need of their family, they secretly move back to Virginia and become the center of a vastly important trial that goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Of course, they never even make it to the courthouse that day. They’re more interested in living their lives.
Edgerton and Negga are achingly perfect as the central couple. They’re people of few words, but their love and emotions always ring true. They share an intimacy impossible to deny and Nichols lovingly shoots their lives. The drama they face is entirely imposed upon them and the only times the film falters is when Nichols gets a little too clever in cross-cutting between their daily routine and the historic events they kicked off. Thankfully, there isn’t too much of that. Nichols barely even acknowledges the courtroom drama, mostly playing that material for gentle comedy as the couple show polite disinterest to their lawyer (played by Nick Kroll, of all people, who’s sweetly funny in the role).
Nichols has slowly grown into one of the best filmmakers of his generation over the years. Fiercely intelligent, admirably unsentimental, visually gifted, and unafraid of ambiguity, he’s exactly the type of filmmaker mainstream American cinema needs. Nichols is perfect for ‘Loving’, since he avoids as many histrionics as possible to craft deeply endearing and believable characters, then shove them through painful circumstances. The film is powerful, backed by amazing performances in roles big (Edgerton will likely be an awards contender this year) and small (Michael Shannon cameos as a Life magazine photographer, and it’s amusing to see him play a human). The unavoidable sweeping emotions of the piece sometimes get the better of the filmmaker and push ‘Loving’ into melodrama, but thankfully that’s the exception and not the rule.