Director Jeff Nichols
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood
Released 3rd February 2017
Seeing films well in advance of their release is just part and parcel of being a film critic. In the case of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, I saw it back in November last year – just hours after watching Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation. Aside from their obvious similarities, they made a thought-provoking double bill, especially when it came to the treatment of their subjects.
Nichols has left behind his usual fictional territory to bring us the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a multi-racial couple who, in 1958, drove out of their home state of Virginia and got married in Washington DC. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 meant they had no option. On their return, they were arrested, imprisoned, but also told they could avoid more jail time by staying out of the state for the next 25 years. Back in Washington, their case was taken up by a civil rights lawyer and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. They delivered their verdict in 1967.
This isn’t the first time that the Lovings have been committed to film. The 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, has provided Nichols with much of his source material – some of its footage makes an appearance in the film – so his film is already hallmarked with accuracy and authenticity. And it goes without saying that their surname was something of a gift, getting to the heart of this story of defeating discrimination. Yet the tone is quiet, dignified and modest. There’s only limited confrontation, no physical battle and everything is seen through the eyes of the couple themselves.
Richard (Joel Edgerton), is a bricklayer who loves to tinker with cars and whose use of words is nothing short of spartan. Yet his taciturn nature means he also gets to the heart of any matter in just a few words. Why should they be allowed to marry? “We ain’t hurting nobody,” is his reply. Neither he nor Mildred are going to the Supreme Court hearing, so what message should his lawyer take with him? “Tell the judge I love my wife.” For him it’s that simple. Mildred isn’t quite so reticent and, in her quiet way, is the bolder of the two. It’s a letter from her that starts the legal ball rolling and she’s more willing than Richard to talk to the press – but only just. But she’s also the more afraid of the two.
Edgerton and Negga are both outstanding, with Negga receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Edgerton has a remarkable knack for playing inarticulate men – his role in Nichols’ Midnight Special is on similar lines – but he’s not a man without feelings or emotions. And Negga’s Mildred is wide eyed, vulnerable at times, but with nerves of steel underneath that slight frame. But at the heart of their story is their complete devotion to each other. In her last interview, Mildred’s description of her husband was profoundly moving in its simplicity. “He took care of me.” They were just another couple, who loved each other, wanted to be together and raise a family. Except, for the first nine years of their marriage, it was against the law.
No barnstorming, no big speeches – this isn’t the courtroom drama you might expect. And that’s because Nichols has allowed the characters to dictate the tone of the film. Their ordinariness and simplicity made them special and their story isn’t ordinary, but inspirational and deeply moving.
I wrote this review in 2016 and felt at the time that Loving could easily make my top ten of 2017. I haven’t changed my mind.
Loving is released on Friday, 3 February 2017 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 2 February 2017.