Cinema has a habit of playing up dramatic stories: people tend to be colored more “good” or “bad” than reality, the odds are amped up, tension is added to make for a better story, and there’s always dramatic music swelling to a climax as the characters share an emotional moment. However, even at its craziest, real life isn’t anything like this. It’s quiet, subdued, and even the more emotional moments don’t feel incredibly over the top. It is this sense of gentle realism that helps to make Loving one of the best films of the year, and one of the best love stories to hit the screen.
Jim and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively) are two simple folk living in Virginia in 1958. They have a strong love for each other, built on their quiet-yet-kind personalities. Unfortunately, they face an insurmountable issue: in 1958, many states, including Virginia, had miscegenation laws-that is to say, interracial marriage was illegal. And because he was white and she was black, the couple is arrested, thrown in jail (despite Mildred’s pregnancy), and sentenced to banishment. The couple is not to return to Virginia for 25 years, making it incredibly difficult to visit their families and for Jim to work at his construction job. As the years go by, Mildred looks for a way out, and with the help of young ACLU lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), the couple finds themselves on the footsteps of the Supreme Court, attempting to prove that love is truly all that matters.
What writer/director Jeff Nichols has done here is deceptively simple. In telling a larger-than-life story filled with romance, empowerment, and hope-catnip for a lesser artist-Nichols chooses to instead focus on the real-life aspects of the story. Jim and Mildred aren’t portrayed as do-good symbols of the system, they are just simple folks who want their rights. The people who oppose their love aren’t portrayed as over-the-top racists (ok, some are, but not the majority) as seen in films like Mississippi Burning or Selma (both of which I love). Instead, they just don’t want to mess with the status quo, and think these two kind people are just making a sinful mistake. I’m not sure I can remember one specific instance of the n-word being uttered in the film (it may very well be scattered about in the film, but it certainly wasn’t prevalent the way it normally is in films of this kind), but I can remember at least three very pointed uses of the phrase “You knew better.” It makes for a much more interesting dynamic than the usual “bile-filled bigot” stereotype, and gives a better understanding of the institution as it stood in the late 50s. These decisions are furthered by a deliberate denial of the usual “catharsis moment.” There’s no big moment where the characters scream for their rights, or something super serious happens that changes the course of the movie. Instead, it’s little moments, and little gestures, as the Lovings reluctantly deal with the world around them. It may seem off-putting to say there are no moments for the film to shine, but I cannot begin to tell you how refreshing it is to just have a gentle little film about love than anything hammering me over the head.
This sense of minimalism also extends to our heroes. Normally when you have a film about characters fighting for their rights, you get big emotional moments and Julianne Moore screaming for her rights in open court. Loving is completely different. Jim and Mildred are portrayed as incredibly reluctant to have their lives become the cornerstone for interracial marriage. When Cohen tells them their case could go before the Supreme Court, they are hesitant-they’d rather just deal directly with the local judge than be pushed onto a national stage. What makes this interesting is watching how two relatively introverted country-folk deal with these changes. When we first meet them, Edgerton portrays Jim as a quiet and inarticulate man, but one who can open up with his friends, and who’s always beaming and jovial when around his beautiful wife. Negga, meanwhile, portrays Mildred with a stoic grace, playing everything close to the chest, knowing that almost anything she does can put herself, her child, and the man she loves in jeopardy just because of her skin color. However, as the film goes on, and the times change, the characters begin to switch roles. As the Civil Rights movement marches onward, and a chance emerges for her to live the life she always dreamed of, Negga’s Mildred begins speaking more and more, standing up for herself and expressing herself and her love more freely. Jim, meanwhile, begins to realize that, despite being white and a man, he may be powerless to keep his family-and especially the woman he loves, who he would do anything for-safe. As this happens, the spark we see in the beginning grows less and less prevalent, and his sentences grow shorter and shorter. However, no matter how much these characters change, the one thing that Nichols and his actors keep onscreen at all times is how happy, open, and loving (excuse the pun) these two are with each other when they are alone together. They are portrayed as each other’s rocks, and no matter what the Virginia government, or their neighbors, or what anyone says, nothing can take that support away from each other.
As for the performances, obviously this film belongs to Edgerton and Negga. The two of them are forces of nature, portraying everything in a simple glance, and playing quiet, simple characters with the heart of a million lesser movies combined. Meanwhile, Kroll portrays his role aptly-when he first appears, he plays the role a bit more for laughs, like a more likable Ruxin from The League. However, as time goes on, and he begins to show his prowess in the courts, he begins to prove himself, and his delivery of the final monologue before the Supreme Court is absolutely touching. Character actors also pepper the rest of the film to great affect as well, including Marton Csokas as the Sheriff, David Jensen as the judge, the entirety of Mildred’s family, Bill Camp as a sympathetic (to a degree) lawyer, and Alano Miller as a family friend. Each has a little moment where they are allowed to stand out without ever overshadowing what Nichols is going for, and they help make the film the little wonder that it is.
Loving is perhaps one of the simplest films of the year. It is also one of the sweetest, as well as one of the very best. Through its simplicity, it lays out fundamental truths to its audience, without the pomp and circumstance, and just shows us two people, very much in love, who want to be allowed to spend the rest of their lives with that person. It’s the kind of film where a character, when pressed for a statement to give the Supreme Court, states, “Just tell them…I love my wife,” and it doesn’t feel forced, or cheesy, or even preachy. It’s just a matter of fact statement. And it’s a beautiful one at that.