Jeff Nichols prefers to take his time telling stories; perhaps it’s due to his southern sensibilities. Nichols’ latest film, Loving, opens to the sound of crickets chirping. He lets the moment just linger; no music, no dialogue. Finally, he moves on to close-ups of his actor’s big beautiful faces. It’s an appropriate introduction to a film that tells so much of its story with the things left unsaid. If you’re a fan of Nichols’ previous films, then odds are you’re going to fall in love with Loving. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Nichols’ previous work, Loving’s powerful story, intoxicating cinematography, and unbelievable performances will pull you right in.
Loving tells the real-life story of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), an interracial couple that fell in love and got married at a time when such romances were forbidden. Young, in love, and with a baby on the way, not even Mildred expects her romance with Richard to have a happy ending. Either too smitten or too naïve to care, Richard throws caution to the wind and proposes to Mildred, the love of his life. In 1958, the Loving’s home state of Virginia deemed interracial marriage illegal, forcing the couple to drive to Washington and perform the ceremony in secret.
As long as they can be together, the Lovings are fine with keeping their marriage under wraps. Their honeymoon period doesn’t last very long. In the middle of the night, the police come crashing through their bedroom door, drag Richard and Mildred out of bed, and haul them off to jail. The Lovings each receive a one-year jail sentence but have their sentences suspended on the condition that they leave the state. Born and raised in the country, Mildred has never even been to the city. Despite her attempts to acclimatize to city life, it’s clear that Mildred’s heart remains back in Virginia with her family. The rest of the film focuses on the Lovings’ battle to return home as husband and wife.
What sets Loving apart from other films is how comfortable it is in its own skin. The movie doesn’t lean on melodramatic courtroom speeches or rousing scores to give anyone the feels. Nichols is so skilled at his craft that he doesn’t rely on the usual cinematic bells and whistles. Instead, he emotionally guts his audience through visual storytelling and by evoking knockout performances from his cast.
Authenticity is essential when creating a period piece. Nothing takes an audience out of the moment faster than obvious Hollywood chicanery. One of the reasons the Magnificent Seven remake doesn’t work is because it feels too polished. The Magnificent Seven’s costumes and sets look like something you see on a Universal Studios tour. By contrast, Loving’s production design looks incredible. Production designer Chad Keith’s painstaking attention to detail infuses the film with an authentic feeling, old-school soulfulness. Loving paints such a vivid picture of the late 50’s that I feel like I can step into the screen and order a drink at the local malt shop – let’s call this desire for wish fulfillment, “the reverse Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Loving is openly advertised as the story of the couple who fought to change Virginia’s marriage laws, so to call anything a spoiler is a stretch, but consider yourself warned. Towards the end of the film, there is a moment when the Lovings’ lawyers are preparing to go to the Supreme Court. In most films, some overwrought courtroom speech would serve as the climax. Instead, before leaving, the lawyers ask Richard what he wants them to say on his behalf. His response is, “Tell them I love my wife.” Those six words gut-punched me harder than anything else I’ve seen in a movie this year. It takes a confident filmmaker to hinge such a huge moment on such a modest line. It’s a brave choice and it’s an example of how Nichols is only growing more self-assured with each passing film.
Ruth Negga: remember the name. Odds are she will own Hollywood one day. It’s been a long time since an actor/actress had me so unapologetically in the bag. This woman is something special, that is if her otherworldly performance even qualifies as human. In the film, she’s more like an emotional tsunami in a sundress. Negga completely melts into her character. She conveys Mildred’s frustration and exhaustion so wholeheartedly that I instantly tuned into her pain. In one scene, after receiving a phone call, she left me an emotional wreck just through the mix of hope and anguish in her eyes. Negga is about to become acting royalty and Loving is the moment she’s anointed to her throne.
Edgerton delivers a powerful performance of his own. As Richard, Edgerton is a lovable knucklehead. He displays an adorable aww-shucks demeanor, often communicating without making eye contact, head down, and hands in his pockets. He’s the kind of guy who moves his lips when he reads long words in the Sunday paper. It’s Richard’s simple disposition that keeps him from overthinking his complicated relationship. He loves Mildred and that’s all that matters. Edgerton’s never been better. Everything from his world-weary gaze to his hunched shoulders constantly reminds the audience of the oppression, fear, and indignity wearing him down every single day.
Loving is the work of a phenom director firing on all cylinders. The story is both heart-breaking and uplifting; the enthralling production design and cinematography actually romanticize such an ugly era, and the performances can’t receive enough praise. What’s most impressive is how Nichols tells such a powerful story with whispers instead of roars. Loving arrives at a time when we can all use encouraging tales about love overcoming hate. After all, what’s more inspiring than a love that blossomed when it had every reason to wilt?