Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton
Watch Loving online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“I’m pregnant,” Mildred Loving (Negga) tells her husband, Richard (Edgerton), as they sit on the front porch. It’s the kind of announcement that would mark the climax of most romantic dramas, but Loving isn’t most romantic dramas. It studiously avoids climaxes at every turn. There’s a pause. Then, Richard replies: “Good. That’s good news.”
And well we might think so, until the middle of one night, when Richard and Mildred are hauled out of their bed and arrested for their illegal union. Mildred, you see, is black. And Richard is white. And in 1950s Virginia, that wasn’t to be tolerated. The couple’s ensuing legal battle, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, was a landmark moment in US civil rights. You’d be forgiven for expecting a little drama, maybe some histrionics. But they never come – at least, not overtly.
Director Jeff Nichols is in his element here, crafting a breathtakingly simple story with minimum fuss and maximum heart. A period drama might not seem like a natural choice for the director of Midnight Special, but the pastoral backdrop and gentle exploration of life seen from the outside of society are things that he has made his own in his relatively small but brilliant and recognisable body of work. Halfway through, Michael Shannon even turns up.
He plays Grey Villet, a magazine photographer sent to give the couple’s take some national exposure. He’s a quiet, unassuming fellow, content to blend into the backdrop of their domestic life. We see his images over the end credits – candid shots of the two framed against the wider intimacy of their living room. Nichols recreates that same feel throughout the film, a painstakingly precise portrait of honest affection that is sublimely unnoticeable. One scene in a field sees Richard promise to build Mildred a house, one that Nichols films out wide to show these tiny figures against the expanse of nature around them. As they draw closer, his camera does too, culminating in tender close-ups of the pair. These emotional climaxes are never explicit, but they happen again and again and again.
Such near-clinical detachment might engender a sense of alienation, but Nichols’ aversion towards any hint of biopic cliche creates a space for his actors to pour their souls into. Ruth Negga, who was sensational in Iona and is currently stealing the show in AMC’s Preacher, delivers a star-making turn, her almost silent smiles speaking volumes – it’s no coincidence some of the most momentous events occur as we simply watch her on the phone, her voice daring to speak up just a fraction louder than normal. Joel Edgerton is an expert at disappearing into supporting roles and his hulking presence never once pushes out into the world around him; he’s a thrum of activity and conflict, visibly uncomfortable with the attention their marriage receives, but it’s a conflict that remains unspoken.
In Nichols’ hands, that understatement only makes things more involving – by the end, you’ll be crying without even realising it. There are no grandstanding speeches to explain why this story is important – its release at a time when America is experiencing severe division and hatred makes the film even more so, but Nichols isn’t here to deliver a lecture. Stripping everything else away, this is a study of Loving, no strings attached. It’s rare for cinema to present us with a positive, undiluted example of a sincere romance, but that doesn’t mean this low-key slice of warm celluloid should be sneered at or under-valued. Such an uncynical, unforced realistic depiction of devotion was last seen in Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange. Here, there’s nothing strange about it. This man and woman having a child in 1950s Virginia feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Loving is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.
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