Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton
Writing about film on a regular basis involves looking for ways to keep your work fresh, finding new approaches where possible without coming off as trite or beholden to gimmicks. Only last week I approached Hacksaw Ridge via it’s somewhat misleading trailer, so it’s frustrating to find myself returning to this lens so soon, but Jeff Nichols’ Loving – which finds UK release this week – suffers an almost identical problem.
Call it the Oscar Effect. Anyone who has prior knowledge of Nichols’ work will know that he trades beautifully in understatement and natural presentation, allowing audience members to apply their own significance on events. His high-water mark, 2011’s Take Shelter, is the best evidence of this, although it applies to all his features including last year’s sci-fi sleeper Midnight Special.
The trailer for Loving employs heavy-handed, overbearing music cues absent from the final product to give the false impression that Nichols’ film is a schmaltzy, sentimental and maybe even clumsy prestige picture, one lacking the clout of much of its competition this year. Without prior knowledge of the director’s work, it might even be enough to put some people off. Fear not though; this is a piece in keeping with his established sensibility, even if the subject matter is more down to Earth than his recent celebrated Starman homage.
This film recounts the true life story of interracial married couple Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga). It’s 1958 and Virginia. A time of rock n roll and drag races, a place of community and putting down roots. Richard, a laborer, intends on building a house for them to share, and Mildred is expecting. Both of their families break bread together. In isolation they are the model of progressive society. The world at large has other ideas.
The first attack on their peace is a typically quiet and insidious construction of Nichols’ as the state police break into their home with the intention of dividing the couple; their union deemed a crime. Though they married legally in Washington DC, Virginia law of the time was not so inclined to such pairings. They are carted away in separate patrol cars and locked up in the town jail. It is not sensationalised. It is not melodramatic. That is not Nichols’ way. It is all the better for his muted, observational approach.
If Kelly Reichardt is the queen of heartland Americana, Nichols is the king. Loving perpetuates his reverence for the states’ rural areas and the communities therein. Like Reichardt he uses poetic understatement as a way to instill a sense of truth and soul into his cinema. Music feathers the picture instead of leading it. Though the beautiful cinematography floods his images with light, this grace only exemplifies the plain-faced evil working against the Lovings as they are forced to leave their home state or face further incarceration. Nichols presents their years-long battle against the system. It’s a just movie, but it doesn’t beat it’s chest to promote its own virtue. In the aforementioned quietude is all the indignation the film requires. And also, all the love.
Edgerton was the quiet soul of Nichols’ previous Midnight Special, and so it goes again here. His Richard Loving is a man of few words, a buttoned-down honest joe who loves his wife. Negga is yet more enjoyable in the role of Mildred, and importantly the two sit well together. Through small gestures, through the things they don’t say to one another, they build and sustain a beautiful depiction of union against the odds, against time, against injustice. And, of course, there is Nichols’ mainstay Michael Shannon (five for five now), just a brief supporting presence this time as LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet, but once again proving himself one of the best in the business. He doesn’t have to save Nichols’ picture (unlike his valiant efforts in vain for Tom Ford in Nocturnal Animals); he just ably assists making a fine film that little bit better. He acts as Nichols within the film; the cameraman sharing moments of honest intimacy.
Nichols and his composer David Wingo make a small miracle out of Richard and Mildred’s surreptitious reunion for the birth of their child. The movement of cars with their headlights sweeping the Virginia fields feels furtive and rebellious, but the smiles of the family brought back together imbue the sequence with jubilation in the face of their oppression, short-lived as it is. Throughout you could collect the dialogue uttered on the back of a school exercise book.
The ACLU comes to the Lovings’ aid and the case ultimately defers to the courtroom and Supreme Court. Under almost all circumstances this is a death knell for cinema, and even the best filmmakers struggle to avoid the imprisonment of enforced made-for-television staging. Aware of this, Nichols keeps it largely out of sight. The Lovings’ case set a legal precedent, but this is about the people behind the headlines and the motions and the amendments.
Nichols doesn’t hide that his film is a political one, that it’s focus is civil rights. Negga’s Mildred is the backbone of the movie in this regard. She pushes the film forward when it feels as though it might hesitate. Without grandstanding, Loving sits comfortably beside Ava DuVernay’s Selma as a great film of our times depicting the racial tribulations of America’s recent past. But it is also a testimony to devotion; it is about the resilience of love, the determination of it. And all without the greetings card cheesiness foretold in the marketing. Have faith in the storyteller. Have faith in the film.
I’ve skirted labelling this as culturally relevant. It seems like anyone and everyone is rushing to point out how culturally relevant everything is right now. But if you can’t see the need for films like Loving in today’s society, then we are truly lost. It doesn’t preach but in existing it teaches. I hope we’re listening.
Now if we can just get hold of the people making these terrible trailers…