Written by Matt Taylor
The story of Richard and Mildred Loving is a heart wrenching one, as well as one that feels disturbingly relevant to modern America. In 1958 – less than 60 years ago, you’ll notice – the two were imprisoned for being married in Virginia, simply because Richard was a white man and Mildred was African American. Easily drawing comparisons to the LGBT’s community fight for marriage equality, as well as the current state of race relations in America, Jeff Nichols new film, Loving, depicts their battle to stay married and keep their family together.
Now, as compelling as the story behind Loving may be, it is also the kind of story that can easily be manipulated by Hollywood into a cloying, overacted example of Oscar bait. But Jeff Nichols is a better director than that, and he helms his film with the knowledge that the story is already dramatic and tragic enough, so it doesn’t need to be further dramatized. Instead, he creates a movie fueled by quiet moments, and anchored by strong, subtle performances. From the very beginning, it’s clear that Nichols is not interested in turning this story into a soap opera, but lets it stand as a believable, realistically told recreation of a true story.
A major reason the film works as well as it does is because of the two leads, who don’t allow the laid back tone to diminish the power of their performances. Ruth Negga, best known for her work on AMC’s Preacher, doesn’t get much dialogue as Mildred, but she communicates all her pain, anger and passion through her eyes and body language. And, when she’s given dialogue, she certainly makes the most of it. Edgerton, meanwhile, gives the best performance of his career so far as Richard, a man of even fewer words than his wife, who tries to lock down all of his emotions behind a veil of stoic masculinity. But Edgerton takes us behind this act, making the audience constantly aware of how he’s truly feeling. One masterfully directed scene, in which Richard is threatened by a racist coworker, allows Edgerton to convey a palpable sense of fear without saying a thing. His most dramatic moment is shot from behind, allowing his arched back and quiet tone of voice to reveal how hurt his by these racist laws.
At times, Nichols commitment to creating a realistic tone causes problems for the film, as many early scenes drag on for a bit too long. The film could have easily trimmed about ten to fifteen minutes, without losing the dramatic tension or emotional impact. Conversely, another scene feels like something from another movie, with Nichols briefly milking a melodramatic plot point to elicit a gasp from his audience. And, while he succeeds in breaking out of his shell as a comedian, Nick Kroll’s performance as the Lovings’ lawyer comes off a bit too cartoonish at certain points. Nichols makes up for these issues with his finely tuned direction, his cast, and some stunning, albeit understated visuals. The film has an old-fashioned but sleek look to it, reminiscent of historical photos from the era, and the set design is believably detailed without feeling stylized.
With a story as powerful as the Lovings’ battle to win their freedom to marry, any director could have made a dramatic film. It takes a wise director to realize that this story is already dramatic enough, and that by simply documenting the emotional anguish this couple and their family had gone through, a compelling film could be crafted. With two wonderful performances at its center, Loving is bound to be one of the year’s biggest surprises, simply because it doesn’t feel like Oscar bait in the slightest. With the exception of a few unfortunately melodramatic moments, Loving is a rewarding example of slow-burn historical fiction.