“Loving” is a movie named for its subjects, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). Writer/director Jeff Nichols tells the amazing story of a mixed race marriage that was legally forbidden in their home state of Virginia at the height of the civil rights movement. The Loving trial, and the ‘Life’ magazine profile that circulated their story, resulted in change in U.S policy. What makes “Loving” such a refreshing and enthralling viewing is that it does not magnify the participants for the sake of the tale to tell a Hollywood version of their trial and its enduring contribution to race relations and civil rights in the U.S.A. Nichols creates a beautifully dignified portrait of people whose ethics and good nature speak more volumes than any kind of extrapolation.
“Hidden Figures” (2016) is not a bad film in terms of monetary success, audience adoration or critical cut-through (read my review here). The formula and plotting that should draw you in is more penetrating, unfortunately for this reviewer it tickles a kind of ‘gag reflex’ reaction.
Nichols, director of films like “Midnight Special” and “Mud” is an Austin filmmaker quietly crafting some of the best work that American independent cinema has to offer. His script does a tremendous job of allowing the stakes, the significance and the ‘legend’ to build around the characters without ever breaking out of their essential make up. The Loving family have many trials. They’re imprisoned on a number of occasions; they’re forced to move out of their home state because of their situation; they’re threatened in their homes; and on several occasions you get the sickening sense that their own family disapprove of the situation enough to report it to authorities. Nichols creates the texture of Virginia at that time with meticulous production design across the boards. The luscious overgrown landscapes are contrasted with the dirty white boards and muddy bricks of modest farmsteads. Nichols casts right and collaborates with his players to extract some tremendous performances.
Richard is a laconic and inarticulate man and Edgerton’s portrayal of Richard barely opens his mouth, even when he is speaking. Words aren’t his strong suit and intimate conversations that he and his wife have with one another always hit the pause button the moment that anyone else is around. For Richard, devotion to Mildred is as natural as breathing. Edgerton’s performance is quiet but displays great reflections of passages of time as the Loving’s children grow in size and number. He shows his continued adherence to routine and provision for his family. Ruth Negga’s Mildred isn’t nearly as camera shy. She’s bursting with an enormous love and Negga’s performance is completely absorbing without any flurry. Mildred is maintaining the momentum of the plates spinning and attempting, where she can, to bring the humanity to their plight. Being denied to live in their own state to raise their family in close proximity to their extended family for Mildred feels unnatural; it’s a denial of a human right, but she’d never put it that way.
Lesser filmmakers may have found an ‘Oscar moment’ where Mildred or Richard suddenly burst out of their characters like an alien out of our dearly departed John Hurt’s chest, instead when the press are trying to extract any kind of ‘sound bite’, there’s only one major flourish of what Nichols describes as old fashioned “manipulation.” On the wonderful podcast “Soundtracking with Edith Bowman,” Nichols discusses his purposeful close-up on Negga’s face. Richard takes Ruth to a plot of land that she’s been travelling past for her entire life, that’s close to her family and reveals that he’s bought that land, and he’s going to build her a house on it. Negga is divine, the swelling sunrise in her expression is emphasised by the slowly ebbing score.
One of the liveliest moments of the film sees Nichols frequent collaborator Michael Shannon, playing a ‘Life’ magazine photographer, drop in on the Loving’s farmhouse. His tall, imposing gregariousness allows him to effectively barge in on Richard and Mildred but develop a quick rapport. After a home cooked meal, cuddling up on their lounge to unwind and watch a game show, he takes their ‘cause’ defining snap. Richard’s head resting in Mildred’s lap, warm smiles beaming from their faces. It’s a beautiful intimacy, and the look on Shannon’s face is satisfaction and warmth. “Loving” rewards time spent to absorb tremendous minimalistic performances to penetrate the inspirational people beneath the ‘headlines.’