Film, Reviews, Screen

Loving movie review – history is in the hands of decent people

| |

At first blush the title of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ new film, Loving, suggests a romantic drama of easy or obvious sentiment: so obvious they needed to literally spell it out. In fact it is the surname of the principal characters, which just happens to double as a six letter explainer of the film’s key emotion. Stamp that word across an image of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton glued together in a tender embrace and it’s no secret what feeling is at the core of the story.

Loving is littered with shots of the two actors physically connecting as they gaze forlornly into thick, emotion-clogged air. But Nichols, whose most recent film was the coming-of-age and aliens-among-us hybrid Midnight Special, regards melodrama as if he has an allergy to it – avoiding the kind of emotional and thematic signposting that mapped out the recent Hidden Figures and took us to its sugary sweet centre.


Both films are real-life-inspired American period pieces fundamentally about injustice, and specifically about the residue of racist laws and legacies. Both kick around, in no unsubtle terms, the idea that one can be on the wrong or right side of history. In Hidden Figures we saw Kevin Costner beat up a bathroom sign with a crowbar and decree “we all piss the same colour,” in a moment machine-tooled for the trailer.

Joel Edgerton inhabits Richard with quiet calm and austere fortitude: a classically masculine performance.

No such moment exists in Loving. Negga and Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed race couple circa Virginia in the late 1950s who decide to get married after Mildred falls pregnant. Knowing that interracial marriage is against the law, they drive to Washington D.C. and get hitched there.

Edgerton inhabits Richard with quiet calm and austere fortitude, not quite down in the mouth but getting there: a classically masculine performance, with even simple lines like “I’ll be back by dinner” feeling like they’ve been coaxed out of a repressed pathos. The most excited Richard gets is when, in a field of tall grass, he pledges to build Mildred a house; his mind’s eye can even envision where the kitchen will be.

Best laid plans derail when the pair are arrested for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the fuzz rocking up to take them away moments after their first-born arrives. This is the kind of squished together timeline we often see in biopics. In real-life the timing would surely not have been so acute, but packing the two events in close proximity imparts a clear message: the government is messing with their family.

When Mildred and Richard are offered free legal representation to fight the state, their lawyer announcing the case may go all the way to the Supreme Court, Richard demurs. He asks why they can’t just talk about it. These are the instincts of a man who naturally gravitates towards straight-shooting conversation and doesn’t understand spiffy chatter.

Loving is a film, in part, about conservative people fighting conservative people for the ability to act conservatively.

Mildred is a little more hardened in her resolve to fight injustice, remarking that their battle might help other people down the track. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Ruth Negga is exquisite and sad-eyed: a steely but charming presence.

Nichols is careful not to paint either of the two principal characters (or in fact, anyone) as heroes per se. Nor as “suffer in ya jocks!” Kerrigan-style champions crusading for the little guy. Instead of zooming in on the pounding of a gavel or deploying a moving speech, the courtroom elements simply contextualise the Loving’s plight as one representative of larger things, including the right to inherit land and love freely.

Loving is a film in part about conservative people fighting conservative people for the ability to act conservatively (i.e. get married and live modest traditional lives). Marriage equality advocates often make the case that marriage is a fundamentally conservative institution; the parallels between mixed race and same-sex people give the film added relevance in the contemporary news cycle.

The political view put forward by Nichols is ultimately optimistic: social change can be ratified not by song and dance but by decent people unwilling to welsh on core principles. It stands to reason those principals concern marriage, given all of the writer/director’s films (including Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) are about family in one way or another. Loving offers much to draw from, but the greatest image we take with us is the same one on the poster: two lovers holding on, unwilling to let go.


2 responses to “Loving movie review – history is in the hands of decent people

  1. While it was never going to win the Oscar for best film, (way too understated for Hollywood) Loving left the nominees for the big one in it’s wake.
    Such a glorious, subtle and powerful film.
    ***** and a koala stamp from me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *