With films like Take Shelter, Mud and even this spring's somewhat uneven Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols has steadily built a filmography of terse beauty. With Loving, he tackles the kind of boldface subject matter that Oscar season feeds on: It’s a historical drama about the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage. Which makes it perhaps even more impressive that Nichols stays true to his sensibility, avoiding the melodrama or the back-patting triumphalism you expect from such movies. Loving downplays the historical significance of its subject in favor of a quiet humanity.
The film stays focused — almost to a fault — on the modest, very-much-in-love couple at the center of the case. In the opening scenes, set in the late 1950s in Virginia, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) can't seem to keep themselves off each other, whether they're holding hands, embracing at a drag race or even just sitting quietly, touching their knees together. Without idealizing anything, these early scenes depict a poor, rural community that's surprisingly diverse: Black and white folks race cars, work in fields, eat at a table together. Nobody seems to make much of the fact that these two — a white man and a black woman — are in love. When they decide to get married, Richard and Mildred must cross state lines and drive to Washington, D.C. To them, it's the way things are, and they don't question it. They're just people getting on with their lives.
You might expect a story like this to have lots of scenes of righteous speeches and fire-breathing racists. But all we really get is Marton Csokas in a relatively small part as the dirtbag police chief who arrests the Lovings, going on about “God's law.” Even this one-dimensional character is somewhat interesting: He sneers at Richard with a mixture of condescension and pity, because he thinks the guy is too uneducated to understand the differences between blacks and whites. These classist aspects of racism are something we rarely see in films about this period; for perhaps obvious reasons, Hollywood prefers to depict blatant bigotry as something exclusive to the poor and uneducated.
Even as the Lovings face difficulties with the law and slowly become aware of the injustice of their situation, the film never really compromises its patience and intimacy. The couple gets exiled to D.C., unable to return to Virginia together. What drives their dream of going home isn't indignation or morality but Mildred's simple longing for the country: She looks at a small, ugly patch of grass outside their D.C. home as if it's an insult, thinking back to the acre in Virginia where Richard had promised to build her a house.
Both actors are fantastic, and fantastically quiet: Edgerton’s silence speaks volumes about the shame Richard feels at having to put his wife through such horrors. Negga, meanwhile, gives Mildred a matter-of-fact rectitude: This is not noble suffering; she just wants to get on with her life. By staying within the narrow world of these two people, Nichols avoids turning his film into a familiar screed or by-the-numbers legal drama. He also steers clear of that trap so many others fall into: losing focus on the people and letting the lawyers and their arguments become the heroes.
That’s not to say that Loving doesn’t resonate beyond the particulars of its specific characters and time period. Throughout, the film subtly invokes the more recent debate about gay marriage. This is subtle at first, but it’s hard not to be reminded of the connection when we hear the words “marriage is a fundamental right” during the final trial. Nevertheless, Nichols rarely hits us over the head with such things. Throughout, the film’s muted gentleness remains its great strength. Maybe even to its detriment: There are parts of Loving in which the drama dissipates, thanks to the tension between the demands of history and what Nichols has in mind, and there are points when I wished for a little more context behind the legal issues.
But what the director does instead pays greater dividends. While Loving is intimate, it's not indulgent; it seems to have absorbed Richard Loving's eyes-on-the-road humility and his wife's down-home pragmatism. The Lovings aren't even at the court or with their lawyers when the arguments are heard and decisions are made. (One late, brief shot of the outside of the Supreme Court contrasts so strikingly with what we've seen up until that point that I gasped.) We get no broad cathartic moments — no great breakdowns, speeches or confrontations. By the end, though, don't be surprised if your face is awash in tears.