The history of pop culture is riddled with examples of people doing titanically stupid, risky or downright crazy things for love. Whether it’s Rick putting Isla on the plane at the end of Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet performing the ultimate act of sacrifice in their titular play, or Ben Braddock banging on the glass window above Elaine’s wedding in The Graduate, that sense of throwing all care and logic to the wind in the name of love has been deeply ingrained in Western society. Perhaps that’s why Richard Loving took his African American girlfriend from their home in Virginia to Washington DC to marry her, even though interracial marriage was illegal in their state of residence. It might not have seemed like such a big deal in the moment; she was pregnant and they loved each other and of course he’s going to find a way to marry her even if he has to cross state lines to do it. It’s not like anyone would care, right?
Few things seem like a big deal until the cops break down your door in the middle of the night and throw you in jail.
The poor imprisoned lovebirds in Jeff Nichols’ newest film (his second of 2016) are based on the real life couple whose DC marriage was not recognized in Virginia in 1958, causing Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving to be essentially banished from their home and family or else face jail time, an impossible prospect considering Mildred’s advanced childbearing predicament. Forced to make their way in the world in the big city as their family grows rapidly over the next few years, Mildred sees a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an idealistic and inexperienced ACLU lawyer, Mr. Cohen (Nick Kroll), who sees their case as a seed to legalize interracial marriage nationwide via the Supreme Court. Mildred sees the idea as an opportunity to not only allow her to walk freely in the county of her birth, but to offer similar freedoms for all minorities in an era of burgeoning civil rights. Richard just wants the spotlight off him so he can live his life in relative peace. But this is a much bigger issue than they could possibly comprehend.
In making Loving, Jeff Nichols could have forged his take in a number of ways. It could be a searing courtroom drama, as the case for civil rights plays out between lawyers in front of a judge, with the wronged party reduced to spectators. It could have focused in on the climate of civil upheaval in the 50’s and 60’s in more of a Selma mold. These could be considered the most obvious ways to mount a true story narrative about a landmark Supreme Court civil rights case, but Nichols has proven in his still-young career that he’s not all that interested in telling stories in the most straightforward way. The likes of Take Shelter and this Spring’s Midnight Special took science fiction stories and recast them in his particular relational drama mold. Here, Nichols chooses to leave most of the biggest aspects of the case on the periphery, instead focusing on these two people and their love for each other. The result is a film that is both remarkably understated and remarkably sincere. There is no exploitation here, or grand gestures, just two people in love and the actions they take to stay that way.
To mount a film as quiet and reserved as Loving, the two leads at its center need to do the heavy lifting without the outward appearance of lifting much of anything at all. Ruth Negga has primarily plied her craft on television, making this arguably her highest profile film role to date, and she acclimates herself incredibly well. Mildred is the more active half of the marriage when it comes to moving the plot forward, acting as the main contact with the ACLU lawyers and embracing the media coverage that comes with a high profile case intersected with a human interest story, but she never loses her sense of calm and dignity that defines her. Edgerton has certainly spent more film time in the spotlight than his costar, but he shows a side of himself that he had yet to unveil before. His Richard is a bit of a dim bulb, but endearingly so, wanting nothing more than to go to work, raise his kids and build a house for his wife. With a slightly slack jaw, he strikes a pitiable but resolved figure, and even his reticence to embrace the media spotlight or go to the Supreme Court in person comes from a sense of personal responsibility more than ego. They are such a perfectly pitched couple, filling in and complimenting each other’s strengths and flaws, giving and taking in equal measure, and Edgerton and Negga’s work in supporting Nichols’ fragile plot structure makes it all worthwhile. The rest of the cast is relatively small; Loving really is the tale of these two people, after all. There’s a good smattering of intimidating cops and supportive family, but perhaps the most interesting surprising casting choice involves comedian Nick Kroll’s civil rights lawyer. Kroll has mostly stuck to comedy, though his first major starring role Adult Beginners hinted at a more serious side, and he does provide a bit of levity in his delivery, especially when interacting with Edgerton, but he successfully remains restrained when even a little ostentation could wreck everything. Loving is a delicate flower, and all involved work tirelessly to shield it from the elements.
It is always delightful to see two releases from a beloved director in the same year, and after the minor disappointment of Midnight Special (which was by no means a bad film, though it felt acutely lacking in a few areas), it is heartening that Loving is such a potent return to form. A simple story told with conviction, it is a beautiful portrait of true love wonderfully acted and gorgeously staged. Jeff Nichols has made a visual career out of photographing the nature of the southern United States, providing beautiful vistas of fields and meadows here to frame a story gigantic in its implications but tiny in its scope. It is the perfect sort of story for him to tell, so it should come as no surprise that he passes the test with flying colors.