Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Loving, tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage leads the powers that be in their home state of Virginia to banish them from their home. Desperate to return, their desire to be free to love would be heard and ultimately, change American law forever.
Shorn of the almost caustically mysterious atmosphere of the likes of Take Shelter and Mud, Loving is, by a distance, Nichols’ most lean and conventional film. This direction is motivated by Nichols’ decision to utilise the documentary, The Loving Story, as a key inspiration and source text. Through this as a reference, Nichols was able to take exact character and art design textures to apply to his dramatic retelling to convey as truthful an interpretation as possible. Indeed, this attention to detail is one of the most successful elements of the film; the world of the Lovings is captured in all of its unadorned purity, an evocative reflection of their own desire to live just as another couple, regardless of social labels.
Tender at times, with a wistful sense of longing for a different era, Nichols utilises his delicacy of craft and eye for naturalism to create a portrait that feels akin to a classical pastoral vision, reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s City Girl or Terrance Malick’s Badlands in its sharing of a focus on socially challenging relationships treated as abhorrent and yet strengthened by the bond of love in the face of this opposition. Nichols particularly channels this cinematic sensibility in the visual direction of the film: it’s mixture of naturalism in its cinematography and art design, meshing with the fluidity and intimacy of camera movement and intimate framing evoking the gentle expressionism of New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970’s. This is encapsulated in a singular moment in which Mildred arrives for the first time at the secret home back in Virginia after years suffocating in the city life of Washington. Nichols moves with her as she steps forward, and as the warm light of the sun hits her, holds intently on Ruth Negga’s face as she closes her eyes, the sound reducing to take in the nature that surrounds her. It’s a moment of almost religious introspection in its divinity, resonant with the ghosts of Bertolucci, Malick and even Tarkovsky in its simple exaltation.
While retaining the visual elegance of Nichols’ other works, its softness lacks the edge of tension that marked them as examinations of jagged blurring between the reality and myth of American identity. This is particularly perplexing when considering the emotional and historical tension at play within this real case; the weight of history bearing down on the decision. However, this stripping away of this larger context can be seen as a motivated choice by Nichols in terms of capturing the nature of both Richard and Mildred. In this story, they are the core and the importance of what they represent pales in comparison to what each means to the other.
Loving is a marriage of control and care, both on the part of its director and its cast: nothing about it is for show, and the amount of restraint is admirable, particularly from Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in the role of Mildred and Richard Loving. Naturally, their relationship is the heart and soul of the film itself; the two connect with a genuine sense of affection and care, reflecting the naturalism Nichols works deep into the bones of the entire film (even down to dialogue being taken from the real couple captured in the Loving Story documentary) and reinforcing its direct and emotionally centred rhythm. The stoic sense of pride that RuthNegga channels for Mildred is utterly captivating; she is at once vulnerable, and yet carries an unwavering sense of faith that gives her a strength so engaging and nuanced that an audience can’t help but gravitate toward her as a real figurehead. Edgerton has perhaps the hardest task of all in the film playing Richard, a man seemingly barricaded by inferiority and inexperience, yet given a freedom in his love with Mildred. Indeed, personally, for the first half of the film, I found his character tough to break through with, the defences so rigid that other than brief moments of vulnerability, he comes across as an obtuse individual in his vacancy. However, as the film builds along with the Lovings’ struggle for equality, so too does Edgerton; peeling away at layers of the man, his struggle becomes all the more obvious in the emotional openness and fragility he displays, revealing just how hard he fights to keep the light of their love burning in a world whose ignorance to deny it is crippling. The combination of these two performers and the subtle shifts in their characters they so beautifully express are truly a worthy tribute to the real life couple.
In a sense, the film is absolutely the sum of its parts: exceptionally directed, conveyed and performed; but somehow it never manages to transcend into something truly transformative or revelatory, considering the historical importance of the Lovings’ relationship. Perhaps this is an extension of the aforementioned desire to strip the film down to the core of the bond between Richard and Mildred; however, the absence of deeper relationship to the cultural fight for equality does seem to leave the moments that explicitly draw on these issues remarkably cumbersome and almost forced, as they contrast with the intensity of focus on the microcosm of the Lovings themselves.
Loving is a wonderfully crafted work whose subtle focus and grounded reality that, like the iconic Time photograph that the film concludes with, frames love in its most simple and powerful form … and yet, never escapes the limitations this imposes upon the wider possibilities lurking within for an even more thoughtful and expressionist meditation on the strength of human love in the face of hate.