"I know we have some enemies, but we have some friends too."
In all honesty when I first heard what Jeff Nichols next directorial effort would be I was somewhat surprised not just for its content but for how relatively normal it seemed to be. Whereas his other films like ‘Shotgun Stories’ ‘Mud’, ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Midnight Special’ have all subverted a genre or told an ambitiously unique story on their own, ‘Loving’ seemed to be more of a conventional filmmaking exercise than I expected. Or at least that is what I thought it would be.
Based on the true story in which Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Midlred (Ruth Negga) find that their marriage is not valid and that they are, according to the laws of their land, committing a crime by being together. With no other option they begin a legal battle to bring about the end of anti-miscegenation laws not just in their state, but for the whole of the United States.
Biopics of this kind, especially those cantered around a court case, usually follow a similar approach to filmmaking. You will find long winded monologues, obvious parallels to modern society and how different everything is and a hefty amount of melodrama to back it up. But as one of the best storytellers working in cinema today Nichols does not take that approach. He takes this tale and focusses purely on the people at the heart of it. There is no obvious attempt within ‘Loving’ to comment upon anything ese other than the two characters at the centre of the story and that is part of what makes the drama so compelling and so refreshingly personal.
Even the method of conveying that story is unconventional in itself. There is no clear structure or pace to the story yet somehow that natural flow and progression works beautifully as the audience slowly become accustomed to who Richard and Mildred are, their identity and their platonic love for one another. As a result of this, when we see their world turned upside down due to the anti-miscegenation laws of their time, we feel frustration and anger at their plight for more reasons than just basic human decency, but also because we can clearly see their bond and why they should be allowed to remain together.
What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Nichols doesn’t actually lend them a massive amount of dialogue, or at least not the amount one would expect for this kind of story. As I said there are no epic speeches or drawn out debates to be seen within the actual film. Instead we are just observing their day to day life. So much is conveyed on a visual level that it becomes poetic in its method, and while that can prove unfulfilling in some regards, to see such intricate and personal storytelling conveyed in this manner is remarkable to behold. The impact of the ensuing legal battle is not witnessed on a nationwide level, but instead a more personal one. ‘Loving’ is the kind of film where you’re less likely to see the governmental ramifications of a legal act over seeing how it effects what time the parent will return to their children, or whether or not the family dinner will include a lawyer or journalist.
It helps that the cast are impeccably strong as well. Like the film around them Negga and Edgerton take a more retrained approach to their portrayal of the Lovings, painting them as a reserved couple who do not set out to change the world but simply ensure that they can spend the rest of their lives together. Both are turning in career best performances, Edgerton for his quiet and staunch look that carries over throughout the entire film. Not only tat but one can almost see the strain of coping with day to day oppression weighing down on him, for this is a man who wants nothing more than to take care of his family and finds an entire legal system hell bent on stopping him from doing that. It is perhaps best personified when at one point Richard’s lawyer says to him “Is there anything you want me to say to the supreme court of the United States?” Richard replies not with some grand political or moral statement, instead he chooses to say “Tell the judge I love my wife”.
But despite this fantastic turn from Edgerton, it may be Negga who steals the show. Unlike Richard, Mildred is more willing to accept outside help and open her family life up to the world if it will help their plight. Nichols keeps his camera pressed tightly to her performance, allowing the viewer to soak in every subtle detail that further carve out a rich and layered character. Like Edgerton, Negga allows the physical strain to show as the years press on, and her ability to be both strong and vulnerable leads to a fully believable character. It is easy to push an agenda with this kind of story and that can often get in the way of what matters most, the human side of the story. With performances like this, and in a film so fully realised, historical figures and what they represented, have rarely felt as prominent or personal.
A deeply personal film that relies on humane storytelling over flashy gimmicks, with terrific performances all round.