All love is created equal.
In 1958, a white man named Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton, The Gift) marries a black woman named Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga, Preacher). Unfortunately, they live in the state of Virginia, where interracial marriage is illegal. Richard and Mildred are arrested, and eventually given a hard choice: either they end the marriage, or leave the state for a minimum of 25 years. The Lovings reluctantly agree to depart, but eventually decided to make a risky return to Virginia for the birth of their first child. Shortly after the baby is born, they are arrested yet again. A lawyer manages to persuade the judge to let them leave the state once more, but warns that a third visit will likely end with a lengthy prison sentence.
So, the Lovings take up permanent residence in Washington, where they have more children, lead a quiet domestic life and watch attentively as the Civil Rights Movement continues to gain steam. Eventually, Mildred decides that she’s spent enough time waiting around: she writes a letter to Robert F. Kennedy, who refers her case to the ACLU. There’s a possibility that the case could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, but being thrown into the spotlight comes with its own set of risks.
The story sounds like prime Oscar bait material (a historical setting, still-relevant sociopolitical themes, courtroom battles), but writer/director Jeff Nichols ensures that it never play that way. Indeed, Nichols seems so determined to avoid phony drama and formulaic uplift that he goes out of his way to strip the movie of scenes that other directors would have placed front and center: this is a courtroom drama with almost no courtroom scenes. In place of those more conventionally dramatic sequences, Nichols offers quiet, attentive studies of human behavior. The thing that gives Loving its unique beauty is that it’s more about a specific relationship between two people than it is about the larger symbolism of the relationship.
Actors tend to thrive under Nichols’ guidance, and that’s certainly the case with the work Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga do here. There isn’t a single moment between them that feels false, and their quiet mutual affection grows richer and more complex as the film proceeds. Some of the most interesting moments occur in the film’s second half, as tensions begin to arise over whether or not the couple should willingly subject themselves to the public eye. Mildred feels its important to step forward and make her voice heard, but Richard doesn’t like the attention and worries about the consequences. They negotiate these differences not through overwritten arguments, but through soft-spoken suggestions, body language and vocal tone. It’s beautiful work, and by the time the credits roll, you feel as if you know these people intimately.
The elements of racial tension are handled in somewhat unconventional fashion, too. Rather than serving up an abundance of scenes in which the Lovings are confronted with the sort of overt bigotry that was common in the era, Nichols often confines the open racial hatred of the era to the angry, judgmental eyes of bystanders. These people aren’t muttering racial slurs under their breath, but they might as well be: you can see exactly what they’re thinking. Here, Nichols continues to demonstrate his gift for casting just the right actor in every single role (Martin Csokas is quietly terrifying as a stern Virginia sheriff, and there’s a brief-but-wonderful appearance from Michael Shannon – who has appeared in every Nichols film – as a LIFE Magazine photographer).
However, there’s one actor who feels jarringly out-of-place in the film: Nick Kroll (The League), who plays earnest ACLU attorney Bernie Cohen. Kroll’s a talented comedian who can be a delight in the right setting, but he has a big, broad acting style that feels wildly out-of-place in a movie this understated. Even though he’s offering a toned-down version of his usual persona, he feels as if he’s been imported from another movie. Given how attentive Nichols is to every character in every film he’s made, I’m fairly certain the effect is intentional: Cohen is a lawyer who’s out of his depth (he knows very little about constitutional law), and he’s played by an actor who is also out of his depth. It’s an interesting idea, but so distracting that it ultimately hurts the film more than it helps it.
Kroll’s presence is Loving‘s only substantial problem, but there’s also a sense that Nichols’ determination to prevent the movie from becoming formulaic comes at a price: the movie never quite generates the sort of raw dramatic power you expect it to. It’s instructive to contrast it to something like Hidden Figures (another based-on-a-true-story historical drama dealing with related themes and set in the same time period), which doesn’t have half of this film’s subtlety but manages to achieve that gripping, edge-of-your-seat quality in a big way. Forced to choose between the two approaches, I’ll take the attentive grace of Loving… but in both cases, you sense that real greatness is just a few adjustments away.
Loving (Blu-ray) offers an adequate 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The film has a soft, moody look, and doesn’t really shine in HD the way a lot of modern films do. Detail is pretty good throughout, but the image frequently appears a bit flat and darker scenes can occasionally be a bit murky. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is certainly low-key, but effective, blending some gentle sound design elements with some smart soundtrack choices (a smattering of period-appropriate songs and a low-key score) smoothly. Dialogue is clean and sharp throughout. Supplements include a commentary with Nichols, a handful of brief featurettes (“Making Loving,” “A Loving Ensemble,” “Loving vs. Virginia” and “Virginia: A Loving Backdrop”), a trailer, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Loving ranks as one of Jeff Nichols’ lesser works, but that says more about the overall quality of his filmography than it does about anything else. This is a fine, beautifully-acted, thoughtful historical drama.