Jeff Nichols’ Loving is about love, first and foremost. It is also about how an interracial couple’s relationship led to their arrest in Virginia which eventually led to the Supreme Court overruling its view on anti-miscegenation paving the way for marriage equality everywhere.
Yet despite tackling such a grand episode in American history Nichols keeps his focus almost solely on Richard (Joel Edgeerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) and in doing so brings powerful emotion to what could have easily been another courtroom drama. By keeping it a love story about two people who are very obviously mad about each other Nichols manages to make their fight extremely personal and heartbreaking.
A little context is needed before one can really continue. The Lovings were a very real couple so the events that the audience is watching unfold actually happened. Nichols uses as many real locations as he can and stays so true to events that the story does not override the truth. There are times where that might seem anti-climactic but Nichols deserves praise for telling the truth rather than bending it for the sake of cinema.
The rather small lens that remains focused on the couple so much so that when outside forces like potential racist co-workers or the media get involved it almost feels like an intrusion. To his credit that is exactly how the Lovings wanted it. They were a very private couple and Richard was very soft spoken and shied away from the spotlight that the case brought to him.
Because of that it is Mildred that ends up carrying much of the movie. Negga brings a quiet power to her role as someone caught up in the middle of the Civil Rights movement almost on accident. Edgerton’s Richard doesn’t speak through much of the movie but when he does it is powerful and full of emotion. He is a man that loves his wife and kids, plain and simple. The fact that he lives in rural Virginia in a time when racism is a way of life is not his fault but this is the life he is living no matter who gets in his way.
Not everything in the movie is a home-run though. For some reason Nichols cast comedian Nick Kroll as the couple’s ACLU lawyer and it just doesn’t feel right. Kroll always feels like he is fighting back a smirk or a smile and that smugness clashes with the levity of the situation. He seems to shout all of his lines and at times it is like the audience is watching two different movies every time Kroll comes on screen.
The opposite can be said of Michael Shannon’s cameo as a LIFE photographer Grey Villet. Shannon has the chops to steal the scenes he shares with Negga and Edgerton but the way he simply stands back and lets the action unfold while photographing the couple together are just beautiful. Though only on screen for a few minutes Shannon’s performance warrants a re-examination and it would be interesting to see a whole movie about the famed photographer. His performance is that good.
Loving is not only a great love story but an important one as well. Nichols seems to be taking notes from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy as the movie shines best when it simply lets the couple do their thing. Negga and Edgerton bring such warmth to their performances that the audience never once questions their love or loyalty to each other. By choosing that route rather than focusing on the racism of the era or the courtroom the entire film enters a whole new territory that allows it to be honest and real with the audience.