Directed by Jeff Nichols
Opens November 4
Loving presents a vital story through a largely conventional lens. This is one of those emotionally investing, based-on-a-true-story narratives that could easily be called awards bait, though to dismiss it on that account is to overlook some fine performances and moving moments. In Virginia in 1958, Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, a black woman. They were arrested and banished due to the state’s strict anti-miscegenation laws, and in 1967 their case, Loving v. Virginia, went to the Supreme Court, leading to the striking down of all laws against interracial marriage. In one of the film’s most memorable images, the couple face each other in shadowy profile—it’s a neat shot recalling the old “two people or a vase?” optical illusion, but here, in a tale of two people making their way in a racist world, it takes on a new gravity. In this intimate, dark shot, the Loving couple (they couldn’t have had a more potent name) becomes a single entity and race seems to slip away.
Of course, race never goes away, and we need only turn on the news to be reminded of this fact. The final moments of the film, in which the happy, long-in-the-making Loving v. Virginia verdict is delivered over shots of the couple’s children playing freely outside, feels a bit too much like liberal back-patting. It would be valuable to see more of the trial itself, and the sunny images of the children recall the clichés of political campaign commercials. The film is built around its two central performances as a microcosm for a time of struggle and change. Ruth Negga infuses the role of Mildred with a silent film star’s emotional power and expertise in holding a close-up. With her wide eyes, pursed lips, and natural mix of sweetness and grit, she’s undeniably captivating. Joel Edgerton, squinting and with his blond hair and brows exceptionally white, doesn’t give Richard quite the same power—he remains a bit inscrutable throughout the film. Loving would’ve done well to include a scene of the couple’s earlier days. Perhaps such added context would flesh out Edgerton’s performance. Loving is at its best when it operates on a small scale. In one scene, a photographer from Life (a reliably eccentric Michael Shannon) comes to Richard and Mildred’s home to shoot them for the magazine. He eats with the family and takes candid photographs as they relax at home. Richard and Mildred watch TV, Richard cuddled up with his head resting on his wife’s lap, his expression breaking into a rare smile. The lens clicks. As the film ends, we see the black and white photograph of the real life Lovings on the couch, and they look remarkably like their cinematic counterparts. Even more strikingly, the picture shimmers with the same sense of cozy intimacy that director Jeff Nichols so skillfully presented in the earlier photo shoot sequence. While Loving takes few stylistic risks and could reasonably be described as middlebrow, it does a fine job of presenting a lived-in comfort that takes precedence over the ugliness around it.