7.5 out of 10
Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving
Directed by Jeff Nichols
At least since Imitation of Life, the power of film to focus attention on social justice, particularly US racial issues, has been well known. By the 1950s, alongside the burgeoning civil rights movement, it had developed into a full blown genre of its own, which means it had developed its own rules and expectations.
The most central of these is the triumph of process over point as storytellers focus on the requirements of drama first and foremost. It’s always been easier to build tension through the movement of plot – waiting for a dramatic decision to be made – than to visualize the inner angst of the people waiting for those decisions. Not unlike some of the leaders and groups involved in the struggle to advance human rights for everyone, the powers that be overly focus on groups at the expense of the individuals who make them up.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols has looked at all other social commentary films, the Giants and Philadelphia’s of the world, and found them lacking because they try and do too much. Focusing all of their efforts on what happened – the motions and appeals and investigations and crimes – and little to none on the people going through them beyond high-level emoting to explain the stakes.
As a producer of character-focused fables like Mud and Take Shelter, Nichols has made a name for himself focusing on the effects of extreme circumstances on people as opposed to the circumstances themselves. Those skills are in full view in Loving, his dramatization of Loving v. Virginia, the fight of Richard (Edgerton) and Mildred (Negga) Loving to strike down interracial marriage restrictions in the US. But so is the downside of busting genre conventions which is largely running headlong into the reasons the conventions exist in the first place.
Impersonal as they may be, the courts and conference rooms are where things happen in the fight for social progress. The lives of the individuals, for all the big events happening around them, go on and on with work and child-rearing and occasional reminders of the more difficult elements they are a part of.
Nichols’ big idea is to focus all of Loving’s attentions on those elements, to remind us what all this fighting is actually for. Without all those extra side dishes and decorations, you have nothing to focus on but the meat of Edgerton and Negga’s performances. And there is plenty there to focus on.
Nichols is old hand at wringing truth from realistic interactions of ordinary people in extraordinary situations and the Loving’s story has the extra benefit of being true. In their concerns for their children, for finding work, for being left in peace, Edgerton and Negga are both ordinary and extraordinary. Particularly Negga who embodies the steady grit, determination and relentless optimism required to see the year’s long progress of their struggle.
Underplaying is the name of the game, and it’s a far more difficult game than is often realized as taken too far it becomes unemotional and unbelievable. Nichol’s skill is more visible in these moments than any other, particularly when he shifts focus momentarily to one of his brief but important supporting characters like Marton Csokas’ tyrannical small-town sheriff or Michael Shannon’s Life photographer.
It’s when these characters intersect with the Lovings that the strength of Nichols’ vision is most evident and Loving gives its greatest rewards. Unfortunately he can’t keep it up for the entire running time and there are frequent, inadvertent reminders that most of the time there is almost no tension or suspense. Real life as most of us live it is individual routine punctuated occasionally by major events. Only in this case those are world-changing events (or at least nation changing).
It has the benefit of some of the year’s best performances and a genuinely new way at approaching these kinds of films. It also points out why films aren’t made that way and how difficult it could be to try and change those unspoken rules.
None of these mean as a film or an experiment Loving is a failure, it’s far from that, but it does mean that what it does well is difficult to repeat. That’s not a bad thing either, giving Loving a certain uniqueness, not just because it’s done something new, but because it’s done something hard to replicate as well.