The simple pleasures in life are observed simply, sweetly, and sorrowfully in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a smart, moving account of an interracial couple whose shared life in 50s rural Virginia is upended by a racist judiciary system. Unlike most cinematic love stories, the conflict is entirely external and Nichols makes the threat that faces the couple an omnipresent force so that we band together with Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving in hopes of preserving their relationship.
It’s a small-scale story with large-scale ramifications, since the actual event led to the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, and it’s a mix that Nichols uses beautifully to his advantage. He intimately observes the love between husband and wife and thus lends the shocking hardships of their journey together a personal poignancy.
Richard and Mildred live a laidback life in the Virginia countryside, attending drag races, tinkering with cars, enjoying the company of friends and family, and not much else. There’s nothing extraordinary about their way of life other than how much they love each other and Nichols gracefully establishes a sense of how utterly safe and American this is or at least should be. Richard works hard laying bricks and then returns to a pregnant Mildred to enjoy their time together before repeating the whole schedule again the next day.
Work and pleasure, love and family. It’s so utterly regular and Edgerton and Negga play their roles so deep in their bones that it all feels stunningly unremarkable, just lives being lived. Into this soothing serenity barges a racist cop in the middle of the night, who wakes the sleeping couple and promptly tosses them behind bars, all because Richard, a white man, married Mildred, a black woman.
From here on out, the story takes many twists and turns as Richard and Mildred are temporarily banished from the state of Virginia and forced to move to the city to stay together as they start a new life and begin the long trek to interracial acceptance. It’s a terribly overwhelming sentence to be slapped with, a putrid perversion of values. Cinematically speaking, it's also a potential excuse to engage much heartstring-tugging histrionics.
Except Nichols avoids such things altogether. Loving remains a gentle, tender, understated movie about two people who want only to be raising their kids side by side. Everyone, both in front of the camera and behind, follows suit and plays their part in this quiet key. It’s all part of Nichols’ inspiring message that hideous acts of cruelty and insensitivity don’t have to change you if you can stay true to yourself.
Of course, Nichols isn’t naïve enough to suggest that these events haven’t greatly affected his protagonists, but he attends to those affects in subtle, sombre ways that illuminate the tragedy while warmly communicating some love-conquers-all optimism.
When Mildred steps out of the car as the Lovings first arrive in big-city Washington, D.C. after being booted out of Virginia, she instantly notices a ruddy patch of grass on the edge of the sidewalk. The camera notices it too, but Nichols pays it no more attention than that, only connecting the dots much later when Mildred acknowledges that she wishes her children could play in the open fields of the countryside that she considers home.
It’s a moving callback to that moment where a few straggly blades of grass surrounded by concrete represented the whole concept of a city and it’s a moment like this that encapsulates Nichols’ gentle, careful touch. Something small and simple that grows into a portrait of personal strife, that defines and underlines the freedoms that racism has robbed the Loving family of.
As the movie meanders to its historic conclusion, it remains needled in on Richard and Mildred, a creative decision that works so well because Edgerton and Negga are tremendous in their roles. Negga is especially incredible, taking Nichols’ tender tone and feeding it back to us in captivating ways. Her hypnotic eyes seem like they could overemote without even trying, but she holds back despite so much of her performance having to be worn on her face since the dialogue is sparse.
Edgerton mumbles and grumbles his clipped lines and always appears to be shouldering the weight of all the emotions that he can’t put into words, which amounts to a very physical performance that still manages to be quite subtle when the temptation to be loudly showy is clearly lurking around.
The pair has great chemistry as well, depicting a deep connection that fits wonderfully with Nichols’ patient pace. This isn’t a passionate love affair, but a long-lasting bond built to weather a storm and making that type of coupling convincing requires an incredible amount of skill and foresight shared between the two actors and their director.
It’s perhaps Loving’s greatest strength, that the movie personalizes this true story so effectively that we can feel close to two people and not just to an historic precedent. We believe in Richard and Mildred as a couple instead of merely as a symbol. Nichols matches his style and tone to the characters and insightfully indicates that a seemingly simple approach to capturing love and humanity can become a compelling chronicle of our complexities.