I’ll start off by saying that Loving is a guaranteed winner of my “Understated Film of the Year” award (if I had such an award). In fact, it may be the most understated film I’ve ever seen. This is a remarkable achievement and one to be lauded, especially when dealing with a subject matter like this, because it could so easily have been sensationalized.
The subject matter in question is the marriage of a white man (Richard Loving, played by Joel Edgerton) to a black woman (Mildred Jeter, played by Ruth Negga) in small-town Virginia in 1958. Such marriages were against the law at the time (it’s unnatural - think about the children!), so the ceremony takes place in the office of a Justice of the Peace in Washington, D.C., just a few hours away. If the couple had stayed in D.C., this would not have been a problem. But they return to Virginia, where Richard has already purchased land for the house he is planning to build for them. Someone ‘talks’ and the couple are quickly arrested, at which point they are given the choice of immediately leaving the state (for 25 years) or spending a year in jail (if they hadn’t had the right lawyer, they’d have just gone to jail).
Richard and Mildred make the obvious decision, but things happen soon after that force them to return to Virginia, where they find themselves in trouble with the law once again. The story of Richard and Mildred becomes big news when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gets involved through a lawyer named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), who wants to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Loving is, of course, based on a true story. In other hands, this story might have been a melodramatic made-for-TV tearjerker or at least a sensationalized story of the ups and downs of the two protagonists. But in this case, the hands are those of Jeff Nichols, whose previous three films (one of which was released earlier this year) all found (or will find) themselves in my top ten films of the year. Nichols goes for the understated version of the story and gets incredible underplayed performances from Edgerton (I've never seen him near this good before) and Negga to make it work (Alano Miller is also notable in a supporting role as Raymond, Mildred’s brother). The result is a film that’s almost jaw-dropping in its subtlety. Unfortunately, there’s a Catch-22 in making a film this understated. It’s a brilliant, gorgeous (great cinematography) film, and I hugely admire what Nichols has accomplished, but it’s so understated that it didn’t engage (or move) me enough to get four stars and make my top ten this time.
Nevertheless, Loving gets a solid ***+ and is highly recommended to everyone. My mug is up.