Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Martin Csokas
Running Time: 123 min
With films like Selma and The Help making waves over the past few years, it’s easy to see what kind of film Loving could have been. It could have been melodramatic, full of righteous rage and loud proclamations. Instead, Loving is as quietly humble as its two leads, which is both its greatest strength and weakness.
Loving tells the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and white man who married in 1958 in Virginia and then spent the next ten years trying to overturn the state’s ban on interracial marriage. Instead of focusing on the landmark civil rights case, director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud) directs his attention to the quiet but steady relationship between Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton). When Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant in the opening scene, it’s a quick progression to Richard proposing to her on an acre of land he’s bought for their future house. It’s clear that Mildred and Richard are simple people and have grown up simply. They both care deeply about their families and, most of all, about each other. Their races are never addressed until one night when the police storm into their room and brusquely arrest them and sentence the couple to leave their home, the state of Virginia, for 25 years.
Both Negga and Edgerton are sublime in their roles. This is a breakout part for Negga, who has been charming television audiences for years on shows like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. and the recently begun Preacher. She plays Mildred with quiet strength, often appearing submissive on the outside but always staunchly defiant of those who oppose her marriage. As Richard Loving, Edgerton completely loses himself in the physicality of the character, with close-cropped platinum blonde hair, tobacco-stained teeth, and a sullen, simple attitude that seems to only melt away in the presence of Mildred.
It would be easy to turn the story of Mildred and Richard into a sensational, emotional whirlwind. Instead, Nichols smartly portrays them as quiet, simple people who only want one thing – to return to their hometown so they can raise their kids in the countryside and in their own home. With a PG rating, Nichols keeps their chemistry chaste and silently illustrates their devotion to one another through loving touches and quick kisses. The biggest conflict comes from their decision to take their case to the Supreme Court, egged on by the ACLU and their lawyers (a pleasant Nick Kroll). Their notoriety grows, fueled by a visit from the always-great Michael Shannon as LIFE photographer Grey Villet, and Richard struggles with the bad attention that comes with the good. A simple and gruff man, we watch him become more paranoid as he fears for his family’s safety. But even that conflict never truly dominates your attention.
In keeping to the humble world of Mildred and Richard, Nichols spends very little time in the courtroom or on the legal battle at all. The Lovings don’t attend their trial at the Supreme Court and receive the news of their win over the phone. While it stays true to the tone of the film, it practically erases the potential for a big scene with emotional pay off. In keeping our characters modest and simple, much of the high-stakes drama that we often see in films is missing. While it’s refreshing, it also means that attentions can wander, especially with a run time just over two hours.
Quietly engaging, Loving is a beautiful look at a couple that changed America’s history. The grandeur of that accomplishment feels a tad glossed over, and causes the film to lose some of its emotional heft. That said, you’ll enjoy watching Negga and Edgerton enough that it won’t really matter.