Loving tells the well-documented story of Richard (played by Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (an Oscar nominated Ruth Negga) Loving, an interracial couple who went up against the state of Virginia, to fight for their ‘illegal’ marriage. This fight would eventually lead them to the Supreme Court, where their landmark case resulted in the abolishment of the laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Opening slowly, with an almost alarming quiet – just a close up of the two main protagonists sitting side by side on a porch - sets the tone and definitely the intimacy for the rest of the film. The quiet, unassuming couple are introduced to us through a montage of almost silent shots, focusing on their intimacy and clear affection for one another. This quiet is abruptly interrupted by the newly-married couple being awoken in the middle of the night by local Sheriffs – signalling the start of their battle to prove themselves, and their marriage, to the state of Virginia.
Edgerton is in fine form, immersing himself into the character of Richard, an almost reluctant pioneer. His performance is extremely nuanced, his physicality doing most of the talking. Any softness we see in Richard is brought out by his wife, Negga’s Mildred who is the heart of this film. The character is performed with such emotional integrity that you’re almost just yearning for her presence on the screen when she’s not there. It is Mildred who brings the strength to the couple, and in turn, to the film. Her pain comes mostly from her separation from her family, more than the denial of her union with Richard. What she finds as the biggest injustice, is the fact that this ‘crime’ has taken from her, and her children, the spanning countryside of Virginia and her family.
With the film being centred around such a famous, landmark case, Writer/Director Jeff Nichols, could have really made this a large sensationalist statement – one of which would ring particularly true in the current American political climate. However, the gravity and weight of such a legal battle is understated, with Nichols choosing to focus almost purely on the Loving’s themselves. We rarely see the inside of a courtroom, and the Civil Rights lawyer Bernie Cohen (played by Nick Kroll) seldom expresses any indignation about the struggle the Lovings are going through. While personal, this decision means the plot moves very slowly, becoming repetitive at times. We don’t get to see any history of their coming together as a couple, or even the prejudices that may have kept them apart. A little bit of context to their love story could have pumped up the pace of the first half of the film.
It is hard to come away from this film and to not be affected by the story of the Lovings. However, it feels Nichols has fallen prey to being almost too understated, like the film couldn’t quite find the balance between educating and entertaining. For a film that dealt with such an important, emotional subject matter, it oddly fails to move. In fact, the one true ‘gut-punch’ moment doesn’t come until the very last moment, in the closing intertitle.
Still, Loving is an intimate tale of a fight for ordinary love, with extraordinary strength and is worth the effort for Negga’s extraordinary performance.