‘Loving’ directed by Jeff Nichols
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Mildred and Richard Loving were a working-class couple whose fight to live legally as husband and wife went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where Loving v. Virginia invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. It’s a story with all the makings of an Oscar bell-ringer, but Loving (in national release) failed to make a dent in this year’s derby. That’s a testament to the film’s director, Jeff Nichols, whose refusal to adorn his tale with scenes of barnstorming indignation nicely honours his less-than-prolix leads. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga without a trace of actorly condescension, the Lovings are undemonstrative to a fault, except with each other.
The pair are dragged out of their bed by police in the middle of the night, and forced to leave Virginia, one of 24 states that outlawed interracial marriage, to avoid jail. Living in a cramped duplex in Washington, DC, and cut off from friends and family, Mildred frets that her boys are growing up without the space to stretch their legs. She eventually writes to Bobby Kennedy and is put in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers see a chance to revise the Constitution for good.
Nichols, still in his 30s, is an Arkansas native. His first two (and best) features, 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2011’s Take Shelter, are stories of biblical foreboding, in which working-class whites are buffeted by cosmic forces beyond their control. His subsequent films have been less idiosyncratic. He’s tried out star vehicles (2012’s Mud, with Matthew McConaughey) and genre (2016’s Midnight Special). Loving marks a return to the domestic scale of his earlier films, this time in the more straightforward key of the message movie.
The new film displays his talent for building dread, aided by the brooding, anxiety-inducing ambient compositions of his regular composer, David Wingo. Violence is augured but never arrives. Richard finds a brick sitting on the passenger seat of his car, instead of through the windshield. A glowering sheriff (played by Kiwi actor Marton Csokas) offhandedly threatens a pregnant Mildred with rape, seconds before releasing her. There’s a rhythm to it, like waves that peter out just short of cresting and crashing down.
Nichols wrote the script, and he sticks steadfastly to his central couple, even when the action’s elsewhere. The Lovings don’t attend the Supreme Court, and we glimpse only one impressionistic fragment of the trial itself. The film concludes with the obligatory title cards filling in what happened next, standard for the biopic and typically lily-gilding. But Loving’s coda, stark but faithful to its heroes for sheer lack of self-pity, packs an emotional wallop that the film had seemed primed to withhold.
Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.