Jeff Nichols’ second film of 2016, Loving complements his Midnight Special in a variety of ways. It further proves that Nichols can easily switch between genres, that he’s an excellent actors’ director (especially for Joel Edgerton and Michael Shannon), and that very few other filmmakers can direct driving quite as well as Nichols can. Unfortunately, up against Midnight Special, Loving’s key problem of lacking a solid narrative drive becomes very clear. Undoubtedly throwing both of its leads, particularly Ruth Negga, into awards contention, much of Loving can’t quite match the very high quality of its central performances, making for an enjoyable, but not hugely impactful, drama.
Negga and Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, the amazingly aptly named couple whose 1958 interracial marriage made them criminals in the eyes of the state of Virginia. Exiled to Washington DC, their battle to be allowed to live together in their home state captured the attention of the entire country, eventually leading to a Supreme Court trial that had the potential to alter the US Constitution. Nichols’ script covers ten years of marriage, sometimes skipping over years at a time. He trusts that the audience will just keep up, even if the aging of the Loving kids seems rather inconsistent, and allows himself the time to focus on just the vital moments of this decade in their relationship.
Edgerton, bearing a really striking resemblance to the real Richard Loving, is excellent as a kind man baffled by the fact that his love for his wife is frowned upon. He’s not doing anyone any harm, but his faith in this fact being enough for a Virginia courtroom makes him reluctant to take the case to a federal level. Edgerton manages to have Richard’s insecurity about his intelligence come off in waves; he’s rarely the smartest person in the room, and his palpable distrust of the educated DC lawyers (lead by Nick Kroll in a rare dramatic role) illustrate this brilliantly.
For all of Edgerton’s good work, Loving is Ruth Negga’s film. Layering calm acquiescence with seething fury and indomitable will, it’s an exceedingly impressive piece of work that stands among 2016’s best performances. Her chemistry with Edgerton is just right to sell their relationship as something that could survive years of persecution and tumult, and the emotional clarity that Negga provides is vital to play off Edgerton’s more opaque display (and sometimes rather unintelligible accent).
But while there’s plenty of fire in the lead actors (and in a fine cameo from Michael Shannon), the rest of the film lacks that vitality. There’s an urgency missing from the leisurely-paced story, so small moments fall into major emotional climaxes without packing the requisite punch. For the first 20 minutes, Nichols manages to build and sustain tension superbly as we see Mildred and Richard get married in DC before heading back to the countryside, where something horrible is inevitably going to happen. This comes in the form of a late night arrest, police smashing in through locked doors like they’re busting a major crime ring and, whilst this scene is very effective, the film struggles to get any of that initial energy back.
Nichols’ take on race relations of the 50s and 60s in unexpectedly subdued. Of course, this is a story with hideous bigotry right at its heart, but almost all of the prejudice comes from authority sources, whether it’s Virginia state law or Martin Csokas’ Bible-thumping cop. At work, or at the drag races where Richard makes some extra cash, there’s little evidence of ingrained racism, with some people looking at Mildred and Richard cock-eyed, but never speaking out. It’s an appreciable subtlety, but one can’t help but feel that it must be a sterilised version of what an interracial couple must have faced on a daily basis. It’s an example of Loving’s overall problem having respectable aims, but without the necessary commitment to really push through to something truly stirring.