Summary: The true story of the case that ended anti-miscegenation laws around the country. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) are young and in love living in Virginia. They drive up to D.C. to get married. The Lovings’ attempt to start their life together is interrupted when they’re arrested for “unlawful cohabitation.” This is the beginning of a decade-spanning battle that goes up to the Supreme Court as the Lovings continue to try to find some sense of normalcy.
The secret at the core of Loving is that for an inherently political story and an activist biopic, it’s not fully either of those things. I mean, it is, by necessity. It’s impossible for a film of its ilk to not be.
First and foremost, it is a personal story, a domestic story of two quiet people finding love and finding out how to negotiate it in their world. In that way, it turns that into a story of activism, of how love can be a political act even when they don’t want it to be. It turns that into a film that seeks to eschew the normal beats of a historical drama, no sweeping speeches and grand weightiness. Just two people in love.
And those two people are extraordinary. Jeff Nichols has always been good with actors, but Loving is in a lot of ways his most actorly film, one that gives more space than ever for character interaction and relationships and the little moments that make up performances. Of course, Nichols’ refusal to make this a big sweeping tale means that his actors are under those same constraints, pulled down so far as to make their few moments of acting excess (crying mostly) stand out all the more.
Edgerton has always been an incredibly solid player only occasionally given a role that uses his ability to give meaning to reticence (The Gift being the last that springs to mind, especially since it was directed and written by him). As Richard Loving, Edgerton uses that reticence to bring the difficulty Richard has expressing himself to the forefront. It’s a deeply sensitive performance, one that understands the little expressions that say a lot and the difficulties a man like this would have becoming such a prominent figure, a man who loved in front of the whole world.
But as great as Edgerton is, it’s Ruth Negga who really blew me away. She embodies the movie, letting the quiet things that few other actors would let speak fill the narrative frame. Look at how she wilts when she’s forced to leave Virginia, the way she’s able to show strength without ever trying to be powerful. Negga is truly phenomenal, wearing everything with deep and wonderful subtlety.
And part of it is that Nichols gives the two of them actual meaty material to work with. I can imagine a lot of takes on this story that turn the two into infallible saints, those who can do no wrong and therefore lose any semblance of nuance or really delving into what makes these real people worth rooting for.
In a lot of ways, that’s the film’s biggest strength. It does feel like a snapshot from the period, one that’s interested almost entirely in the two of them. It’s not full of fire-breathing racists, but just the ones they directly have to deal with. It’s not full of protracted legal drama, just what the two of them need to know as the case moves forward.
By the way, quick side note about the legal drama: Nick Kroll is their lawyer. Like, I get it. Hell, the film even does a smart thing by making it clear that his awkwardness is part of a performance, that the man is out of his depth. But as a long time fan of The League, The Kroll Show, and Comedy Bang Bang!, I can’t help but see every other character before I see Bernie Cohen. He does a good job, but that’s totally on me.
Anyway, Nichols has drawn the focus so down to the couple that it does sort of suffocate some of the possible surrounding drama. Everything is focused on presenting that. It’s shot warm and soft, like an old photograph, and it’s all focused on presenting their faces and their interactions. Everything serves that central relationship.
Which means anything else gets shoved out. The legal drama, the political struggle they face, all of it feels kind of shoved into the background for a story that gets flattened out. There’s a remarkable story to connect with, but its forward motion can be uneven and sputtering, the core is never really quite there. It’s a study, not a story.
But on the other hand, Loving has enough to overcome that. It’s a powerful reminder of what love can be and what love can mean. It’s a story of the radical act of defying the norms and holding out hope. A beautiful portrait of two people trying their best, it’s just a shame that it doesn’t feel a little more urgent in the direction that it tells that story.
P.S. The only good use of the “real people” at the end of a biopic this year.