Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: "Loving"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 123 minutes

Despite building towards a Supreme Court decision, it would be a mistake to label Loving as any sort of courtroom drama. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, and this year's Midnight Special) has taken a slice of history and made it less dramatic. There are no long, tearful speeches or impassioned arguments about right and wrong. But the film is called Loving, not Loving v. Virginia, and Nichols avoids the legal aspects for as long as possible. Nichols opens his film with Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) sitting together on a porch. In the moment of stillness, there are no worries of racial injustice or threats to their safety. It's just two people who love each other and want to lead ordinary lives. 

Extra emphasis should be placed on the word ordinary, as Nichols deftly avoids turning his leads into simple martyrs. Loving is a love story, but it's one where the central couple is already deeply in love at the start. If only those around them would just leave them be. Yet even with run ins with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas), Richard and Mildred's scenario is consistently handled with sensitivity and a bit of distance. In between legal troubles (the couple's county of residence forbid interracial marriages), they race cars, go to family gatherings, and work on the local farmland. Were it not for the pesky law, the Lovings would be in their own Eden.

Though the message seems simple (Lovings good, racist law bad), Nichols and his actors do a beautiful job of conveying the Lovings' struggle without becoming redundant. The performances from both Edgerton (a native of Australia) and Negga (of Irish/Ethiopian descent) are so quiet, yet they positively radiate with warmth and tenderness. Early on, Richard takes Mildred to an empty parcel of land. Mildred questions her husband with neutral curiosity as to why he's brought her to such a place. And then he tells her that this is where he plans to build them a house. Mildred hesitates, her eyes flicker, and she looks around again, as if she's suddenly been transported. The moment, like many others, is so simple, so gorgeously evocative of the love between husband and wife.

Whether experiencing a moment of triumph or a setback, Edgerton and Negga keep their performances 90% internalized, and to watch react with such modesty is a thing of beauty. Edgerton, keeps his head down through much of the film, which makes his few displays of distress that much more haunting. When he drunkenly whispers "I can protect you...I can protect you," it comes loaded with the weight of a lifetime of frustration. While Edgerton deflects, Negga does the opposite. She holds herself up as best as she can, never a damsel in need of man's rescue. To look into her silent moviestar eyes is find yourself bombarded with wave after wave of emotion. The body language of the actors is an integral part of their performances, rather than a show-offy crutch to fall back on ("wow, he put so much effort into slouching!").

Despite the loveliness of Richard and Mildred's scenes together, the time does come for the legal portion of the story to intervene, and Nichols integrates it all seamlessly. We are shown as little as possible, and no scene is devoted to dense legal strategizing. A few meetings with the lawyers are all Loving has time for, and next thing you know it's time for opening statements at the Supreme Court. All the while the Lovings move around, have kids, and do their best to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Tales of social justice and civil rights are often exercises of fiery passion. Loving opts for nothing more than humility over the course of its stately two hours, but that certainly didn't stop it from making my eyes well up at the simplest of gestures. The Lovings' ordinariness is a wonder all on its own.

Grade: B+/A-

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