In 1967, the Supreme Court overturned all bans on interracial marriage with its landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia. Nearly 50 years later, Jeff Nichols offers a modest salute to the couple at the center of the decision with “Loving.” The film traces a strong, steady line to a foregone conclusion, and that steadiness is exactly the point.
Nichols’ key insight is that for all its historical heft, the civil rights decision affected nothing that wasn’t already there. The momentous ruling changed everything, and nothing.
The case and the details pertaining to it are rather peripheral to the film, which premiered in the main competition at Cannes on Monday. Instead, “Loving” maintains a laser-like focus on the domestic life of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga). They fall in love, stay in love, build a life and raise a family, and there is nothing exceptional about them but for the fact that doing all that when one partner is black and the other white is a criminal offense in the state of Virginia.
Nichols released his first studio film, “Midnight Special,” at the beginning of the year, and will almost certainly end 2016 on the awards circuit with this film. If his profile has risen, his style remains the same. He remains a low-key chronicler of Southern rhythms, which pervade “Loving.”
The film takes place in living rooms and at family reunions, and the mood would be laid-back chill were it not for the 25-year prison sentence threatening every backyard barbecue.
In that sense, “Loving” keeps in perfect thematic step with his previous films. Both “Take Shelter” and “Midnight Special” are about fathers trying to keep their families safe in the face of acute danger, and “Loving” is no exception. Here, though, the threat is not apocalyptic or supernatural, but something far scarier — the American legal system.
The real legal battle takes place entirely off screen, however, represented in two or three scenes by an ACLU lawyer played by comedian Nick Kroll. Most of the time, the taciturn Richard fights for his family by being a regular guy, a good dad who works his job.
Edgerton plays his part well, but his character is a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, so the role hardly offers a showcase for the actor’s range. Negga, on the other hand, is the real breakout. The laconic Nichols is not one for swelling strings or sweeping melodrama, and so he lets the film’s big emotional beats play out on her face.
The net effect is that when thinking of the film’s poignancy, one thinks about Negga. That’s going to be an ace in her sleeve for the rest of the year.
What might hurt the film, and what some have already complained about in the press area at Cannes, is a sense of dramatic inertness. The whole idea here is “perseverance through patience”: Richard and Mildred are strong and in love from frame one through to the very end, and though the threat they feel is pervasive, they fight it with the civil disobedience of … eating dinner as a family.
Living your truth and waiting for the rest of the world catch up is a strong motto for life — but translated to film, that approach yields a narrative that can feel a little too passive.