Jeff Nichols’s Loving establishes the director as a reliable purveyor of sturdy, if unremarkable, dramas. Still, the film is probably his strongest since his little-seen Shotgun Stories, getting closer to his debut’s firm bedrock of tensions in rural community life than the sci-fi road movie Midnight Special, the Stand by Me riff Mud, or the psychological drama Take Shelter, all of which took certain gambles of narrative or style that weren’t quite carried off. Loving is instead content to stick to a kind of prestige-film template—the social-realist melodrama—and find little grooves of humanity to explore in its characters and its milieu in between the expected story beats.
The film’s first third traces the ordeal that interracial couple Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) face in Virginia’s Caroline County when they travel outside the state’s borders to get married in D.C. Almost immediately after their return, Richard and Mildred are locked up for “cohabitation” and Mildred has to spend a weekend in the county jail. Richard hires a lawyer, but the best he and his new wife can hope for in early-’60s Virginia is a 25-year ban from being in the state at the same time.
The action then shifts to Washington, where the couple spend five years raising three kids and trying to get used to city life. Finally, Nichols bares down on the famous civil rights case that the Lovings are known for today, following the ACLU’s legal team (Jon Bass and Nick Kroll) as the case loses at the county and state courts, and finally lands in the Supreme Court of the United States, resulting in the historic, unanimous decision that would lead to the repealing of country-wide anti-miscegenation statutes.
Nichols’s film is at its best when it diverges from formula, embracing the sturdy genre craftsmanship of Shotgun Stories. In a tense, late-night drive to Virginia from D.C., where Richard and Mildred secretly return to in order give birth to their first child, Nichols lends Loving a brief jolt of genre-orchestrated suspense. The film is also strong in its intimate moments of interpersonal drama, in particular those conveyed by Edgerton and Negga, who are able to shape the individuality of their characters with little differentiations in how they respond to the various trials they face together.
Richard is prone to nervousness and a desire for privacy, worried that even the good publicity his case gets from outlets like Life magazine can threaten his family, and frustrated that his efforts alone aren’t enough to protect them. Negga emphasizes Mildred’s dignified strength and resilience, and the spark of excitement she gets out of being a part of the civil rights movement. Both performances believably progress us through years of a marriage, and if the film never really allows any serious tension between Richard and Negga, the actors stake out scenes to show how their characters’ differences in opinion could have caused some distance between them over a long period of time.
American auteurs like Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese have shown time and again that standard historical drama fare can be given further dimension and importance through an identification with modern cultural realities, or by tapping into more universal concerns that lie beneath the service. Nichols’s Loving isn’t exactly a history lesson, and it’s better than most films for the honest emotional quality of scenes like that first one between the two lovers. But Nichols still keeps his drama’s presentation all too respectful and refined, and material this important could be honored so much more by bringing the same excitement and urgency—frankly, the sense of commitment—he’s brought to his more genre-driven work.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.