It’s an irony of many modern films that the more dialogue they pack in, the less meaning they ultimately carry. The same certainly cannot be said of Loving, Jeff Nichols’ quiet, powerfully emotional true-life film.
I confess that at first glance, I dismissed Loving as pure Oscar-bait: racial tensions, the quiet dignity of common people, triumphs against adversity – it’s all there. Based on the actual events of the 1967 Loving vs Virginia Supreme court case which removed all existing race-based marriage restrictions in the US, the only wonder is that no-one has successfully made a film of it before (well, that’s not entirely true – Nichols was inspired by The Loving Story, a documentary aired by HBO in 2011). I headed to the cinema in full expectation of assorted monologues, obvious symbolism, and an ending filled with angry racists receiving their comeuppance.
But Loving isn’t like that at all. At its heart are the interracial couple themselves, Richard Loving (the taciturn Joel Edgerton) and his girlfriend – later, wife – Mildred (Ruth Negga). After she becomes pregnant, Richard takes Mildred to get married in Washington D.C. (with miscegenation banned in their home state of Virginia), but upon their return home the two are arrested by the intolerant county sheriff, chillingly played by Marton Csokas. With the aid of a local solicitor, the two escape a jail sentence on the provision that they immediately leave Virginia and don’t return for 25 years. History, of course, had other ideas; and the spread of the civil rights movement during the 1960’s gives Richard and Mildred a chance to fight for the legal acceptance of their marriage in a state that adamantly stuck to a backwards nineteenth century world view.
In the hands of another director, such a tale could easily devolve into mawkish melodrama, with the truth embellished, and the main characters turned into superhuman bastions of virtue. But Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special) instead operates with admirable understatement – the central characters aren’t heroes, and the world doesn’t change overnight. It’s a piece told with honesty and simplicity, appropriate given the nature of the central pair. The dialogue is sparse throughout, with the real story being told in the gestures and glances of the protagonists; Ruth Negga in particular is captivating, and her expressive eyes alone deserve to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Initially however, we see the story through those of her husband: the quiet, brow-beaten Joel Edgerton, who squints and broods his way through a world which can’t seem to accept the love he has for his wife and leave them be. But Mildred’s presence grows throughout, and she maintains her hope and optimism for a brighter future even when her husband has long since lost his. We may start from Richard’s point of view, but the film gradually shifts in tone until it becomes very much Mildred’s.
Mildred’s natural optimism is made even more potent given the racial intolerance that she and Richard face at every turn. Loving persistently maintains a gnawing sense of injustice that sits over the audience like a dark pall and at times feels almost suffocating. The inherent racism in the film is ever-present and implicit, made yet more menacing by its sheer facelessness – wisely, the adversary in this story is not an oafish evangelical judge, but human nature itself. Only a few characters actively say anything on the subject, but it’s always there: in the shopkeeper who glares at the couple with contempt, or the brick that’s left in Richard’s passenger seat with a defamatory article attached. Racial prejudice is an unmentionable elephant in every room, but its presence is all the greater for it.
With all that being said, Loving isn’t perfect. Its economic use of dialogue is a double-edged sword, with some scenes resonating whilst others drag. At just over two hours long, it also felt as though it could have been more finely edited, with Nichols’ reverence for the story sometimes causing pacing issues; by the finale, I had lost count of the scenes featuring Joel Edgerton applying mortar to a wall, or staring concertedly into the distance. It is also, perhaps, held back by its own simplicity; if you want a film with a complex plot, nail-biting tension or a host of memorable quotes, then Loving isn’t for you.
In summary, Loving is a poignantly-crafted film with a powerful message and a big heart. It (just about) holds you in its thrall for two hours, and leaves you feeling that much better about the world at its conclusion; even if you don’t feel any urgent need to watch it again for a while afterwards.
Photograph: Mr-yuyu via Wikimedia Commons