Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
In the late 1950’s, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) traveled out of state to get married. Their mixed race union was illegal in their home state of Virginia, and soon after arriving home, the couple are arrested and put in jail. Their sentence is suspended on the condition the couple leave the state and never return. And while they comply with the ruling initially, they slowly begin building their years-long case with the ultimate goal of being heard before the US Supreme Court.
I have yet to watch Shotgun Stories, but continue to greatly admire the output of Writer/Director Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special (released only this past spring) are all terrific and blisteringly well-made Films. And now with the release of Loving (less than a year after Special no less), he has delivered another extraordinary picture.
Nichols shot the Film with an excruciatingly minimalist style despite its grand attention to period detail, keeping each scene surprisingly low key and quiet. There are no grand musical moments or scenes of spectacularly fictionalized groups rising up to have their anti-racist message heard. Instead, Nichols keeps the Film focused on the relationship between Richard and Mildred. They are portrayed as a private couple whose love and devotion to their family and each other are what helped them get through their inexcusable circumstances. Nichols shoots these family scenes intimately, helping the viewer to really grasp the weight of the couple’s plight. It becomes slow and plodding in some instances, and dangerously voyeuristic in others – but as a portrait of a family unit unlike anything we know in 2016, Loving is downright fascinating.
Loving only works as well as it does however because of Edgerton and Negga’s performances. They both bring an emotional heft to even the simplest of scenes and feel cosmically connected from the very beginning. Edgerton plays the strong and silent type well, helping exemplify Nichols’ minimalist structure. While he does have dialogue, I feel like most of what Edgerton conveys comes from his brilliant body language as opposed to words. But Negga takes this a step further by expressing her emotions vividly through her eyes. She remains silent more often than Edgerton, but her stunning eyes are sending messages at all times. Watching a pregnant and wrongfully-jailed Negga silently weep is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and emotionally harrowing scenes of the year. Her resilient performance is so great that it threatens to overshadow every single aspect of the Film around her.
The supporting cast also does well bringing this incredible true story to life. Marton Csokas is downright evil in his small role as law-abiding Sherriff Brooks, while Nichols’ good luck charm Michael Shannon shines in his small role as LIFE Magazine photojournalist Grey Villet. Nick Kroll gives an interesting performance as upstart lawyer Bernie Cohen, but is rather obviously out of his comedic wheelhouse. His loud and overbearing nature seems out of place for the content. Some of his scenes are a bit questionable, but Kroll’s work here on the whole suggests he may only benefit from developing his dramatic chops for the future.
Loving can be glacially-paced in some areas, but this beautifully-moving portrait of a biracial couple searching for their legal right to be married deserves the room. It tackles a subject that was relevant in the late 1950s just as much as it is today, and does so with grace and humility. Thinking back, I still cannot get over how quiet and low-key Nichols’ film is – even when it is at its most celebratory. With the addition of two incredible Oscar-worthy lead performances, Loving becomes an absolute must-see for the fall. Just make sure you bring a Kleenex box or two.
Universal Pictures Canada release LOVING in select theatres starting Friday, November 11, 2016.