2016; adapted and directed by Jeff Nichols; 127 mins
OK, sometimes I don’t get to expound (waffle) as much as I would like to about a certain film on the radio due to time, so here’s a full review of my thoughts on the latest Jeff Nichols outing, this time based on a true story…
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving, a young Virginian couple who, in 1958, got married in Washington due to their being a mixed-race couple and thus outlawed from marrying in their home state. Once home, the harassment begins, primarily from the local sheriff’s department and the couple are imprisoned and threatened with further jail time unless they leave the state never to return at the same time again.
What follows is their attempts to, not so much fight but rather ignore or skirt around the laws placed against them and when that doesn’t work, Mildred gets some help from civil rights lawyers Bernard S. Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) who want to take their case to the Supreme Court.
There is an interesting central dichotomy with this film, in that, whilst Nichols has never been particularly ‘alternative’ or oblique in his style, this film and Midnight Special have marked a distinct move towards the mainstream (although, one suspects, more by opportunity than design). On the flip side of that, it is – as far as awards-bait goes – markedly different than anything else you’d expect to see or indeed did see in the Oscars race. Where Moonlight captured the popular and critical zeitgeist but also had mannered, Arthouse cred and Hidden Figures fit the Oscar-worthy category like a glove*, Loving is so subdued and downplayed, that it seems quietly surprising that it was in the race at all.
If Jim Jarmusch is cool, then Jeff Nichols is laconic. This is a laconic film. Much like Nichols other works. Go back to Shotgun Stories and Mud and you have quiet, considered storytelling with characters to match. Even Take Shelter, for all it’s psychological intensity, only speaks when it feels it needs to. Watching his films is like sitting on the front porch, watching the world go by. Occasionally you see something that worries you, something that intrigues you, something that angers you but the world will keep turning regardless, so you’d better get on so it doesn’t swallow you up.
With that in the background, it’s easy to see why the writer/director gravitated towards the Lovings, because by all accounts, they were a couple who just wanted to get on with their lives but intolerance, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws got in the way of that. Certainly, in the two central performances, that comes across very palpably. As Mildred, Ruth Negga goes from excited, loved up teen to wiser, more cautious wife and mother with the subtlest of arcs. Her ability to project a decade-spanning change in her character whilst keeping us, the audience, in no doubt that this is the same Mildred we met at the beginning is acting of the highest order.
Joel Edgerton is a revelation, though. He’s been around for a long time, working his way up and up the film industry, becoming a star whilst remaining relatively unknown and always reliable as an actor but as Richard, he reaches heights that I certainly never saw coming. Whilst neither of the couple is particularly articulate, Richard is clearly the less erudite but through Edgerton, we learn so much more about the man. With the late exception of Michael Shannon‘s Life photographer, he only really loosens up around family and friends. As soon as the lawyers or the TV get involved, he tenses and coils up, sometimes seeming ready for a fight, sometimes seeming to just want to get away. It is a sure sign that, given the right roles, he could become one of his generation’s most respected actors.
Regular cinematographer, Adam Stone, teams again with Nichols to deliver their thing for simple, spare compositions and longer takes which bring to mind, like with Paul Thomas Anderson’s newer work, the classical style of Hollywood directors such as John Huston and Howard Hawks. Praise also should go to editor Julie Monroe for her work which helps the film to engage the emotions whilst remaining at a restful pace. A couple of scenes which come to mind are two that happen back-to-back when Mildred receives a response from the ACLU asking for a meet and she says that she’ll have to talk to her husband first. In the very next scene she tells Richard that she’s going to meet these civil rights lawyers. Now, that would seem to just be relaying the same information twice but the point is that Mildred wants to run the info by Richard to tell him she’s going, not to ask him for permission. She wants to tell him so that he knows and can choose to come along or not. It’s an editing choice which both compliments the pace of the film and tells us more about the power sharing in their marriage.
It does seem that, in general, the response to this film has been respectful but less enthused than the aforementioned race-relations dramas and to come back to that word again: I think it is because the film is so laconic. Critics, I think, have missed the mark and even I, as a fan, was sitting there in the cinema expecting, at so many junctures, a big speech which never comes. Even at the supreme court, the central subject of the film (bringing an end to segregation in all it’s forms) is name-checked and then dropped. The point being, firstly, you do the work, we don’t need to spell it all for you because, secondly, the characters wouldn’t. To have big moments of speechifying between Richard and Mildred about the film’s themes because they wouldn’t. They’re the kind of couple for whom the word “Well…” tells the other half all they need to know. This is, in fact, an unassuming masterwork.
*I’m not being a dick – I liked them both (although I have to give Moonlight another go)