Review: Loving

Beginning in the late 50s, the interracial couple of the film’s title (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) run into trouble with Virginian law when they come back from a trip to Washington DC to get hitched (Negga is with child). Virginian law doesn’t allow interracial marriage, and the racist local sheriff (Marton Csokas) raids their home in the middle of the night and has them both thrown in jail. Given a year’s jail sentence, the judge suspends the sentence on the grounds that they not return to Virginia together for 25 years. Yes, the law is so ridiculous (and it already was ridiculous to begin with) that it stipulates that they can return individually, just not at the same time. So off to Washington the Loving couple (in both senses of that word) goes, until they get the bright spark idea to go back home to Virginia for Negga to have the baby. Unsurprisingly, the law once again catches up with them and they’re arrested. Their lawyer (Bill Camp) finds a way to get them off the charges and once again they go back to Washington for a few years. However, Negga grows increasingly frustrated and with all the civil rights changes beginning to happen, she gets to thinking about taking action to change the law in Virginia. Enter relatively green lawyer Nick Kroll and his constitutional law advisor Jon Bass.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (the overrated “Mud”, the excellent and disturbing “Take Shelter”) gives us something completely different to his previous moody sci-fi offering “Midnight Special”, with this rather straightforward, somewhat low-key racial drama/romance. The title is also somewhat straightforward, but it’s perfect: It’s the name of the central couple, it’s what they share for one another, it’s…everything. Humanity sure can be horrible and stupid and horribly stupid at times, and instances of racial prejudice and segregation are a particular source of some of the stupidest and most horrible examples of inhumane human behaviour. The case of the Loving couple (see what I did there?) is one such example. Even if you take out the racial element, the fact that something like a marriage can be legal in most parts of a single country but not in this one particular state…it’s nuts. I know different states can and do have different laws, but how ridiculous it can be sometimes. I’m no Libertarian as such, but how anyone’s marriage is the business of anyone except the participants in that marriage mystifies me. Then again, I’m also mystified as to why the Lovings went back to Virginia after being banished out of the state. I know things were tough on them, but it’s such a silly thing to do knowing the consequences. So the character behaviour was a bit frustrating for me at times, but Nichols certainly deserves credit for balancing the human emotional element with the legal issues very nicely without overplaying the racist attitudes of the forces against the couple.

Bleached blonde hair isn’t to Joel Edgerton’s advantage, but he’s really good here reminding me of a mixture of Monty Clift, early Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando. It’s not because he’s giving an especially ‘Method’ performance or anything, just that it simply reminded me of those actors in their prime. There’s also a little Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” in that Edgerton like Ledger, plays a man of few words here and a little rough-around-the-edges. Let’s just say that he doesn’t like much fuss being made of their situation, but clearly loves his wife dearly. Both Edgerton and Oscar-nominated co-star Ruth Negga give overall rather quiet performances. In fact, the film’s best moments are simply the quiet ones showing the obvious love between the couple. It’s really quite a lovely connection the actors convey quite often just with body language. She’s well-cast too, because although the film itself doesn’t actually touch on it, the real-life character was apparently of rather confusing and mixed ancestry. Both the character and Negga could pass for either African or Native Amerian ancestry (Negga, by the way, is actually an Ethiopian-born Irish actress). In support, Bill Camp continues to be one of the more ubiquitous and best character actors around, and while Marton Csokas is frankly not a very good actor, he plays an unbending racist lawman well enough. The real standout is Nick Kroll in a funny role as the Lovings’ fairly lowly legal representative, the kind of lawyer that has to rent someone else’s office for a couple of hours and replace the name on the desk. He’s hilarious in a film where the humour he brings is effective and not at all jarring in tone. I know he’s Nichols’ muse of sorts, but playing a LIFE photographer is an odd casting choice for Michael Shannon, normally a powerfully intense actor in roles of more substance. I guess it’s nice to see him lightening up a bit, but it’s not a very interesting usage of him.

A relatable cause at the centre and an understated sweetness are the strong points of this relatively straightforward but sincere true story of disgusting injustice heaped upon two seemingly very lovely people. The postscript is truly devastating, too. It isn’t a great film, but a solid one with fine performances. Some may wish for more anger and fire, but I appreciated the film’s quietness and humble sincerity because while it robs the film of theatrics, it seems truer to the characters. I didn’t love this, but I liked it.

Rating: B-


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