D: Jeff Nichols / 123m
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Sharon Blackwood, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon
Caroline County, Virginia, 1958. Bricklayer Richard Loving has fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Negga), and now she’s pregnant. Knowing that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws prohibit inter-racial marriage, they travel to Washington D.C. and get married there. They return to Caroline County and begin their married life in the home of Mildred’s parents. But news of their marriage has reached the wrong people; in a dawn raid carried out by the local sheriff (Csokas), Richard and Mildred are arrested and put in jail. Richard is allowed out on bail soon after, but Mildred is kept there until the following Monday. At their trial, and on the recommendation of their lawyer (Camp), they plead guilty and are both sentenced to one year in prison, which will be suspended if they leave Virginia and don’t return for twenty-five years. With no other choice available to them, they move to Washington and stay with one of Mildred’s friends.
Richard’s mother (Blackwood) is a midwife, and Mildred is determined that their first baby should be delivered by her. They sneak back to Caroline County and Mildred gives birth to a son, Sidney. But again, the sheriff arrives to arrest them. In court, the judge is on the point of sentencing them when their lawyer intervenes and assumes the blame for their having returned. They return to Washington, and in time, have two more children: another son, Donald, and a daughter, Peggy. But Mildred is unhappy that her children can’t grow up surrounded by trees and fields and a more simple country life. On the advice of her friend she writes to Robert F. Kennedy (at the time the Attorney General), explaining their situation. A little while later, Mildred receives a call from Bernard S. Cohen (Kroll), a lawyer working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who has been passed their case and wants to meet with them. But their first meeting doesn’t go too well, mainly because he suggests they return to Caroline County and get re-arrested so Cohen can begin mounting a challenge through the courts.
Circumstances however, dictate a return to Caroline County, and the Lovings rent an old farm house nearby where they’re unlikely to be noticed. Cohen is encouraged to keep working on their case, and with the aid of constitutional lawyer Phil Hirschkop (Bass), they keep appealing the verdicts given at Virginia state level, until they have an appearance before the Supreme Court, an appearance that will have a far-reaching effect on not just the Lovings, but the whole country.
Following quickly on the heels of his previous movie, Midnight Special (also 2016), writer/director Jeff Nichols has made a much quieter, less spectacular movie, but also one that speaks directly from the heart. Anyone expecting the usual courtroom pyrotechnics that such a story might provoke other movie makers to attempt will be either sorely disappointed or pleasantly surprised. There are only three courtroom scenes in the entire movie, and they’re all very brief. And aside from the dawn raid that sees the couple’s first arrest by Sheriff Brooks, there’s little in the way of full-blown drama or tension. What we have instead, is a movie that quite rightly focuses on the Lovings, and the various ways that their love for each other allows them to weather the legal and social ramifications of their fight to have their marriage recognised – and not just in the state of Virginia.
Nichols has gone to great lengths to make this movie about the Lovings, and not the crusade that Cohen and Hirschkop went on to get the anti-miscegenation law changed, a law that had been born out of the South’s desire to maintain racial purity (Virginia’s argument was that it was unfair to bring mixed race children into the world; the state regarded them as bastards). This contentious stance, and the challenge to it would make for a great movie, but Nichols is more astute than that, and he’s recognised that it’s the Lovings themselves that are the important element here. In scene after scene we witness a couple whose commitment and reliance on each other is evident from a glance here, a touch there, and how strong they are because they’re a couple. It’s their love that shines through, time and again, and it’s all done so subtly and so delicately that the breadth and depth of it is sometimes surprising – and that makes it all the more extraordinary.
Nichols is helped by two very good choices for the roles of Richard and Matilda. Edgerton gives possibly his best performance as the buttoned-down, emotionally and intellectually restrained bricklayer whose involvement all along is tempered by a fatalistic attitude. Edgerton is hunched over and taciturn, weighed down (and yet unbowed) by the wider relevance of his situation. It’s a situation that he doesn’t trust fully, but because Matilda supports it, he supports it through supporting her. Edgerton displays all this by relaxing his features when needed, softening his mostly pinched facial muscles as signs of both acceptance and admration for Mildred’s patience and persistence; you know he’d rather settle for a quiet life in Washington, but he also recognises that it’s not the life he should be leading. For some viewers, it may seem that Edgerton is just brooding a lot and being monosyllabic, but there’s a depth and a profundity to his performance that is very impresssive indeed.
He’s matched by Negga, who gives one of the year’s most sublime performances. Best known perhaps for her TV work on shows such as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and more recently, Preacher, Negga is a revelation here, not portraying Mildred but inhabiting her, and in the process, revealing aspects and nuances that play out through her expressions and her body language. Like her husband, Mildred has a pride and a sense of her own worth that won’t be taken from her, and it’s she who drives the story forward. Negga shows us the determination not to be told where she can or cannot live and bring up her children, and she does so with a quiet fierceness that is entirely credible. Just watching her as she tries to take in what “going to the Supreme Court” actually means, with the character’s naïvete and lack of education shining through, is a perfect example of Negga’s confidence in the role, as she combines vulnerability and tenacity to quite stunning effect. And if further proof were needed as just how good she is, watch Negga when Mildred gets the call from Cohen as to the Supreme Court’s verdict; it’s simply breathtaking, both for its emotional complexity and its simplicity, a conflation that few actresses are able to achieve no matter how much they try.
Nichols is also astute enough to make sure that Loving isn’t about miscegenation, or the racial, social and political turmoil of the time (though they’re acknowledged), but what marriage means for a couple who love each other so deeply. It’s no coincidence that the movie is most effective when a scene involves just Richard and Mildred, and the audience can see how important they are to each other. Nichols is to be congratulated for making a movie that is truly about a couple and not what happened to them; here, all that is of secondary importance. With tremendous, striking cinematography from regular DoP Adam Stone, and a quietly emotive yet affecting score by David Wingo, Nichols adopts a measured, deliberate approach to the Lovings’ story that makes the whole experience that much more thought-provoking and absorbing.
Rating: 9/10 – a simple, yet powerful movie about love and hope, and a couple whose faith and belief in each other was unshakeable, Loving is one of the better screen biographies of recent years, featuring two superb central performances, and a fidelity to the real Richard and Mildred Loving that is refreshing to witness; with few obvious fireworks to grab the attention, what the movie does instead to such good effect, is to introduce us to a couple who never sought the attention they received (except insofar as it helped their legal challenge), and who, while they were alive, were a shining example of love really, truly conquering all.