I admire the simple but profound storytelling of “Loving”. At first, the movie looks conventional on the surface, but then it slowly reveals itself as an intimate and sensitive portrayal of one plain relationship between two ordinary good people who find themselves in a very difficult situation just because of their love, and it is touching to observe small universal human details from them. Like any couple, they simply love each other, and that is all they can show to us, while enduring and then prevailing in their unjust plight.
The movie begins with a turning point for the life of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his girlfriend Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), who live in a small rural county of Virginia, 1958. Its first shot shows us her serene but concerned face, and then she notifies Richard that she is pregnant. Happy to hear that news, Richard decides to do something which he has probably wanted to do since he fell in love with her. He buys a piece of land, and then he proposes to her as telling her about his future plan; he is going to build a house there, and that house will be a new home for them and their baby.
Mildred says yes without hesitation, but there is one big problem evident right from their very first scene. While Richard is white, Mildred is black, and their marriage is not legally possible in their state because of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Because their relationship is not so secret among their families and many other people around them, Richard and Mildred do not mind the violation of this old racist law although they have to go outside the state for getting married. With Mildred’s father being their witness, they have a wedding in Washington D.C., and then they happily come back to their hometown with their marriage certificate, which is hung on the wall of their bedroom in Mildred’s family house.
But troubles come to them sooner than expected. During one night when Richard is sleeping with Mildred in her house, the town sheriff and his deputies break into the house, and Mildred and Richard are promptly arrested and then incarcerated. While he is released on the next day, she is jailed for several days in contrast, and he is frustrated to see that there is nothing he can do except waiting for his wife to be released.
As advised by their lawyer, Richard and Mildred plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth” and then are sentenced to one-year imprisonment, which can be suspended on the condition that they leave the state and then will never return for at least 25 years. They have no choice but to move to Washington D.C., and they eventually come to settle in their new place as having three children between them.
While never overlooking their pain and frustration, the movie subtly but profoundly depicts the resilient bond between Richard and Mildred via small, succinct moments which contribute to our gradual understanding of their deep love. Whenever they are together on the screen, their mutual affection always feels palpable to us, and that is why even a brief close-up shot of his hand tenderly holding her hand means much with considerable emotional resonance.
The two lead performances are as subtle and understated as their movie. Joel Edgerton, who has been more notable since his small supporting role in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002), gives one of his best performances as a decent man who would rather keep his thoughts and feelings to himself even when he is trying his best to endure all the oppressions coming upon him and his wife. Never being showy or silly at all, Edgerton also captures well his character’s introvert side, and he is very good especially when Richard struggles to suppress his fears and anxieties behind his taciturn façade which speaks volumes through its rigid silence.
Supported well by her dependable co-star, Ruth Negga gives a gracefully nuanced performance which quietly radiates further during the second half of the movie. Compared to her reluctant husband, Mildred is more willing to fight for their right, and Negga, who will probably be Oscar-nominated along with Edgerton in next year, is believable as Mildred comes to take a more active role in the slow but steady struggle toward the legal recognition of her marriage.
In the end, everything culminates to the point where Richard and Mildred’s case is sent to the US Supreme court in 1967, but the movie keeps its calm, restrained attitude even at that point, and the director/writer Jeff Nichols wisely sidesteps clichés while occasionally allowing several moments of low-key humor into the story. The most amusing moment comes from when photographer Grey Villet visits Richard and Mildred for shooting their photographs for Life magazine, and Michael Shannon, who has been Nichols’ regular actor since “Shotgun Stories” (2007), has a little fun with his scene-stealing role while never overshadowing Edgerton and Negga.
Since his remarkable debut with “Shotgun Stories”, Nichols has continued to advance with his next two films “Take Shelter” (2011) and “Mud” (2012), and he surprises us again in this year with “Midnight Special” (2016) and “Loving”. While “Loving” may look less distinctive than “Midnight Special” in comparison, this is another impressive work from one of the best American filmmakers in our time, and its powerful human drama is certainly one of the most memorable ones in this year.