Loving – first look

Jeff Nichols plays a true court case of 1950s Old South intolerance from the inside, with Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in breakout roles.

Isabel Stevens

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Loving (2016)

Jeff Nichols is a director who experiments with genre. Shotgun Stories was a Southern gothic western; Take Shelter an apocalyptic psychological thriller; Mud a boys’ coming-of-age drama; Midnight Special a sci-fi mystery. With his latest, Loving, Nichols has turned his hand to 1950s-set melodrama.

Most of his films up to this point have also been personal: Mud was inspired by the time Nichols got his heart broken at school and Midnight Special came to light after his eight-month-old son had a seizure. Loving marks a departure from this: quite shockingly, it is the first time the true story of married couple Mildred and Richard Loving’s court battle against their home state of Virginia, where interracial marriages were illegal, has been told on the big screen (there was a 1996 TV movie and a 2011 HBO doc). Nichols’ film is a touching tribute to their love for each other.

The film charts the Lovings’ journey from being arrested in 1958 to taking on the Supreme Court nearly ten years later. They weren’t involved in the Civil Rights’ movement. They were inadvertent heroes who just didn’t understand why two people who loved each other couldn’t marry and show affection in public.

There was that nice warm Cannes feeling in the Lumière Theatre at the end of the screening as the cinema echoed with applause as the credits rolled. Some critics, however, are calling Loving Nichols’ most conventional film yet. Someone will have to enlighten me as to what’s conventional about understated, delicate drama. The only bows to convention in the film are the occasional soft violins that surface and the lawyers who emphasise how important their case is.

Nichols, a fastidious chronicler of ordinary Southern lives, has stayed true to the Lovings’ perspective. “It’s not right” is all Joel Edgerton’s Richard musters in his defence when he is arrested. This is a courtroom drama that only has two short courtroom scenes and never resorts to rousing oratory. In their first court appearance, Mildred and Richard stand in front of the judge with their heads bowed. The only hint of defiance is the brief pause before Ruth Negga’s Mildred visibly swallows and admits to being guilty. The scene is all the more chilling and sad for their humility.

Just as Nichols noticed the talents of Matthew McConaughey (in 2012’s Mud) during the actor’s rom-com dirge years and singled out an unknown Jessica Chastain for Take Shelter in 2011, again he has plucked two actors – Negga and Edgerton – from supporting and bit parts and given them roles to dig into. Negga’s huge eyes convey the emotion that the script has suppressed and her transformation from dutiful, quiet wife to self-possessed woman is a marvellously subtle one. Edgerton’s Richard cuts a taciturn figure throughout: masculinity in Nichols’ films up to this point has gone hand in hand with bravado, but here it is a far more nuanced affair. Richard does not act as we might expect him to and in one scene he even cries.

Loving (2016)

Even in the Loving’s immediate community, where racial divisions are far from clear cut, menace is always lurking. It’s most potently articulated by a brick Richard finds in his car – left on the backseat, not thrown through the window. The only physical violence Nichols shows is the police storming into the Loving’s bedroom at dusk with one policeman barking at Richard when he shows them the wedding certificate he’s proudly put on the wall: “That’s no good boy, get your pants on.” Later the Sheriff tells Richard with calm contempt why he can’t abide their marriage.

Nichols shows the unfairness of the law that released the white husband after one night and kept his black pregnant wife in jail, but I would have liked more of Mildred’s perspective: history records that she spent five nights in a rat-infested cell, but instead the camera, inhabiting his point of view for a wonderful moment as he’s dazzled by the blinding sun after a night in jail, follows Richard home.

Adam Stone’s cinematography is not as flashily sublime as in say Mud but it captures serene moments of quiet rural beauty. The misty green fields and close-ups of insects and nature contour the home that the Lovings, who have been banished to a cramped urban life in Washington, so desperately long for. Stone excels at slipping unease into his nocturnal scenes, be it a silent moon-lit hallway or the spectacle of an unknown car’s taillights through the windscreen. As ever, Nichols’ attention to everyday labour is acute, from Mildred at home looking after the kids to Richard chucking a bucketful of bloodied water over the porch during a birth scene.

Loving’s restrained drama has a strong emotional undercurrent carried by the tender bond Nichols shows between the couple. Unlike in other of his films where love falters (the divorcing parents in Mud; Son and Annie’s splintering relationship in Shotgun Stories), theirs is a constant. There’s a wonderful scene when the couple go back to Virginia for Mildred to give birth and she is whisked away quickly in her brother’s car before Richard has a chance to say goodbye. But if you’re looking for the outré characters and plot twists of Nichols’ previous films you might not notice such an unexpected and brutal tug on your heart.

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