When Loving was in production, or even when writer/director Jeff Nichols was penning the screenplay, you have to wonder whether there was a crystal ball involved. Surely the producers (one of whom is Colin Firth), had no idea just how incredibly relevant the story of Mildred and Richard Loving would be in the current political climate. From the time they started shooting this film, to its premiere at Cannes in May, to now in a divisive post-election world, the environment into which this film enters is even more topical.
The story begins with Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) finding out the happy news of her pregnancy. Richard sets upon planning a life for their new family, buying a plot of land close to their families in rural Virginia. The next step for them is marriage, and there is a large obstacle in their way. Richard is a white man, and Mildred a black woman. In 1958 Virginia interracial marriage is illegal. They travel to Washington D.C in order to get around this legality, but soon after their return home they are arrested, ripped out of their bed in the middle of the night, the police looking at their marriage license hanging on the wall and crassly commenting that it is, “No good here.”
In order to be together, the couple makes a deal to leave the state and they are forbidden to return together for 25 years. Retreating to Washington D.C to live, they begin to raise their family, though Mildred longs to return to the countryside where her children can run free, sun in their faces and grass at their feet. What follows is this couple’s fight to return back home, to love, and to be a recognized family. It’s a fight that goes all the way to the federal Supreme Court, and one that changes history.
At the centre of this controversial romance, Rich and Mildred have a natural want to just be. To encapsulate this understated love, Edgerton and Negga have an innate sense of closeness which never seems to waver. They seem completely natural together. Edgerton’s role is one of few words, portrayed with a stillness that also brings intensity. While Rich never raises his voice, his anger is palpable with clenched fists and rigid jaw. So to is Negga’s Mildred, who while more vocal about their injustice, is still never engulfed in her rage. Her performance is one told through longing looks and soulful eyes. Together their subtleties make this couple’s love one worth fighting for. Look for Ruth Negga, who steals your attention in every scene, to become an awards nominee this season, if not also a soon to be household name.
Jeff Nichols is becoming a supremely reliable storyteller, with films like Mud and Take Shelter under his belt, his grasp of rural America filters onto the screen. And similar to those films, this is an exercise in restraint, in this case honouring the unassuming couple at its centre. This could have been a sweeping drama with epic orchestral score and weeping, enraged cast, but instead it is quiet, controlled, and subdued. There are moments that could have been almost more emotional, the film dragging in some parts, though the director lets the feelings in when it really counts. Nichols allows most of the storytelling to happen through his actors, not through the dialogue of his script.
Watching Loving, one can’t help but think how unbelievable it is that there was a time, in fact a relatively recent time, where interracial marriage was illegal. However, the fights for civil liberties still exist. Marriage equality and racial divide are still very much at the forefront of political policy. While a film like Loving can show just how far we have come as a society, it also highlights just how far we have to go. Richard and Mildred Loving took a stand, to be able to live and love, and ended up changing the lives of countless others. In today’s reality, no story could be more inspiring than that.
Loving is released in the UK on 3rd February 2017.