Richard and Mildred Loving’s inspirational tale of overcoming the odds to keep their love alive was bound for cinema.
The couple living in rural Virginia during the 1950s made waves with their arrests violating then-Virginia law against interracial relationships and later with Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating laws banning interracial marriage nationwide.
In “Loving,” writer/director Jeff Nichols opts to make their tale a small, intimate piece as soft-spoken and subdued as the Lovings were in real life. The result is a fractured, painstakingly tedious arthouse drama that fails to connect on many levels, in spite of some wonderful moments of intimacy.
Audiences are introduced to Richard, a simple, quiet bricklayer, and his then-girlfriend Mildred when Mildred tells Richard they are expecting a baby. Without hesitation, Richard proposes marriage and the couple live together in secrecy with Mildred’s family after travelling to Washington D.C. to be married legally.
Beginning here proves problematic for “Loving” as Nichols cannot seem to portray why Richard and Mildred love each other, just that they do. Their romance is so subtle and hidden within the film that it’s borderline non-existent, which seems a disservice to the actual couple the biopic portrays on screen. All the nuance and technical skill that went into “Loving” just feels largely wasted, which is an absolute shame.
Veteran character actor Joel Edgerton has a lengthy resume of simply melting into characters and his portrayal of Richard Loving is no exception. The Australian perfectly nails the quiet, modest Virginian both in tone and action. Audiences can easily feel Richard’s internal monologue secretly churning in the many he barely speaks.
Ethopian-born Irish actress Ruth Negga earned an Academy Award nomination this year for her demure, understated turn as Mildred Loving, the outspoken one of the couple, though in Nichols’ script, outspoken takes on new, more reserved meaning. Negga offers much more demonstrative work in her non-verbal performance, letting her eyes do most of the talking. Her performance is perhaps the best thing about “Loving.”
The film’s secondary cast is largely kept to the background, serving mostly to advance the story in one way or another and keep the focus on the couple.
Frequent Nichols collaborater Michael Shannon is powerfully understated in a tiny role as a Life Magazine photographer who travels to do a photo essay piece on the couple during their Supreme Court trial, while Marton Csokas is fine as the film’s largely paint-by-numbers racist sheriff arresting the couple on multiple occasions.
Perhaps the weakest link of the movie is comic actor Nick Kroll, who feels completely out of place and overwhelmed as the Lovings’ American Civil Liberties Union attorney defending the couple against the State of Virginia. Without question, Kroll desires to play the part of a serious actor, but can’t quite seem to do so without seeming invariably outmatched by his costars in every scene.
Nichols extends the film’s subdued motif with a very tempered directorial and cinematic style that pervades every frame of “Loving.” Each shot feels weathered and broken like an art painting left out in the elements too long, which provides a nice gritty element to a movie that lives in the visceral. Nichols doesn’t take many chances stylistically and opts to let the film linger from scene to scene, accenting the quality of the lead performances but dampening the pace to a muddy, plodding level.
The film’s lone awards nominee, Negga in the Best Actress category, probably won’t take home the Oscar as she sits firmly behind Screen Actors Guild winner Emma Stone of “La La Land,” Golden Globe winner Isabelle Huppert of “Elle” and former Oscar winner Natalie Portman of “Jackie.” Her nomination was indeed a bit of a surprise given the omission of Amy Adams in “Arrival,” a film which took home eight nominations, and may signify a trend towards increased emphasis in diversity in the acting categories.
“Loving” may be a film ardent movie lovers seek out over the next several weeks leading up to the Academy Awards at the end of February, though most audiences should probably wait until the film reaches a streaming service like Amazon Prime or Netflix before taking a chance on Nichols’ problematic, strained film.