On one hand the latest film from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special), his first engagement with real-life events, is clearly his most anonymous work as a filmmaker, but there’s also a lot to respect about a hot young director checking his ego at the door and letting a quietly courageous tale be nothing more than a low-key movie.
Based on the monumental 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, Nichols’ film follows white construction worker Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), who falls in love with Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), a local black woman. When Mildred falls pregnant in 1958, the two head to Washington D.C. to get married, due to Virginia’ strict laws against interracial marriage, but that doesn’t stop Virginia’s authorities refusing to accept the validity of the union, leading to a lengthy legal battle.
On paper, this sort of material seems absolutely up Nichols’ street even if he’s never tackled non-fiction material before; his due attention to character and mood mostly serves him well, even if the film’s emotional payoff feels a little on the lacking side. It’s no major knock against Nichols to say that this is easily his most pallid effort to date, yet still a totally solid film.
The main reason it succeeds is because, as mentioned, Nichols takes a highly restrained approach to the filmmaking craft and gives the floor over to Edgerton and Negga to do with what they please. Edgerton does a great job with a stoic, closed-off character, while Negga is likely to earn the lion’s share of plaudits and awards as a fantastic picture of grace against enormous adversity. Michael Shannon is also effective in a small cameo as a Life magazine photographer, and Nick Kroll is surprisingly great as the Loving’s plucky lawyer Bernie Cohen.
Much audience intrigue is likely to stem largely from viewer disbelief that laws so abhorrent were permissible in supposedly “civilised” society just half a century ago, though in the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps it shouldn’t be that shocking. The film’s relevance in contemporary circles should not be denied.
Loving doesn’t tout an abundance of Oscar reel clips and it ultimately all feels surprisingly lacking in emotion, while without prior knowledge of Nichols’ involvement, it’d be easy to watch this assuming any solid director-for-hire was at the helm. That’s a source of both frustration and admiration at Nichols, in what’s basically a no-win situation when it comes to elevating this film to something apparently “greater”.
Loving is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas February 3rd, 2017