2016 MIDDLEBURG FILM FESTIVAL: “Loving,” Jeff Nichols’ passionate look at injustice in our nation’s history, can best be described with one word: understated. Always a straightforward filmmaker in the way he presents his material, Nichols’ choices in his newest film allow him to focus on the emotion and intricacies of his story. Richard and Mildred Loving lived in shame and fear around the time of the Civil Rights era, and Nichols taps into the psyche of their affection. It’s easy to focus on the law of the land, people’s interpretations of an interracial marriage, and go on to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood translation of it all. Nichols chooses to keep the film reserved, much like its two central characters.
“Loving” tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, who are sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married.
The soul of the film is in the astounding performances of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton plays Richard low-key, intimate and reserved. Emotional in the most subtle moments, and quietly singing in others. Negga is savagely powerful with so little words. She’s frequently uneasy, yet radiating positive juju that stays with you when leaving the theater.
Nichols achieves a miraculous juggling act, balancing the sweeping love story with the subtleties of character and detail. He fixates on the inner feelings of the Lovings, being shifted around from different states, and desperate to keep their families together. “Loving” is a sharply observed dissection of injustice. It’s a type of introspective drama that has terrific actors and a strong filmmaker, putting everything on the line to explore the human spirit in the least obvious manner.
It’s uncertain if “Loving” will tap the chords the casual viewer really wants it to. As movie-goers, we’re conditioned to have big, loud scenes to rally reactions from us – either good, bad or ugly. This can be a hindrance for some to fully connect. The missteps in Nichols’ script are apparent in some of the key tie-ins used to bring the story together. This includes a scene in which it seems as if Mildred Loving wanted to fight for her marriage simply because she hates living in the city, which is far too much of a simplification. Nichols lays it too straight in those scenes.
With all that said, David Wingo‘s sonorous score is a gracious addition, while the film’s costumes and sets by Erin Benach and Chad Keith, respectively, create a living, breathing formation of the time. Adam Stone‘s cinematography is delicate yet profound, while Julie Monroe centers on the more surprising moments.
Michael Shannon is a one scene wonder, much too small to garner any awards attention, but a warm presence nonetheless. As the Civil Rights lawyer, Nick Kroll is much too pronounced as himself to come out on the other side intact. There should be dramatic vehicles for him in the future, but this was not the one to have him stretch his legs.
“Loving” has life. It has beauty. It captures the era of today, in a story that took place over 50 years ago. Thinking about same-sex marriage and how individuals fought, and are still fighting for those rights today, the film reckons to make us believe that one day soon, we will look back and wonder how prehistoric our thinking used to be.
“Loving” is distributed by Focus Features and is scheduled to hit theaters on Nov. 4.