The most unconventional thing about Jeff Nichols’ Loving is just how conventional it is. This eternally rising star of America’s art-house scene has regularly been recognised during the last decade as one of the most progressive filmmakers of his generation, and yet as the lights come up at the end of this dispiritingly dull drama, you begin to wonder whether it was all just a fluke.
Nichols, who once more writes and directs here, has taken his inspiration from the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga), an interracial married couple who systematically helped to abolish America’s partisan anti-miscegenation laws back in 1967. We meet them, however, during a blissfully still evening in 1958, where Mildred reveals that’s she’s pregnant with the couple’s first child. “Great” eventually comes Richard’s reply as they share a smile, but the apprehension in their eyes is unmistakable.
With the laws in their home state of Virginia forbidding them from matrimony, Richard and Mildred elope to Washington to take their vows, before returning home to discreetly live a life of monogamy. But their secret isn’t held for long, and soon the pair find themselves, first in jail, and then in front of a judge, who suspends prison time in return for them leaving the State for a 25-year period.
Beautiful performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give a sensitive traction to the pair’s unjust treatment: the stark acceptance in Mildred eyes as she’s led away by the police, which the astonishing actress tempers with hints of longing, worry, and eventually relief after she’s finally reunited with her family – Negga regularly managing to do more with a single stare than the script can with over 120 pages.
Nichols’ direction is frustratingly diluted; refusing to pay too much attention to the major Civil Rights battle that the Loving’s case was a catalyst for. Instead he uses it as another platform from which to focus on the dynamics of relationships & family: invoking more incisive references to the work of Nicholas Sparks than the likes of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. While the Loving’s lawyer Bernie Cohen (a bumbling Nick Kroll) fights for their case in front of the Supreme Court, we’re left to the serene surroundings of Mildred & Richard’s farmhouse in the fields – beautifully lensed by Adam Stone – as they resiliently seek to preserve the peaceful foundations of their marriage during a wearingly withdrawn third act.
Nichols’ restrained approach may be respectable, but his film feels ultimately redundant; seemingly failing to comprehend the magnitude of this moment in American history, and capitalise on a rare opportunity to really reflect on the racially motivated hostilities of the past that are tragically still rife within society today. It’s a real disappointment!
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Ruth Negga
Country: UK, USA