The timing is certainly right for “Loving,” a look at an interracial Virginia couple whose fight for legal recognition went to the Supreme Court and hammered one of the final stakes in our country’s Jim Crow laws: The recent fight for same-sex marriage equality found a valuable precedent in Loving v. Virginia, and the 2016 presidential campaign has certainly seen the unbottling of an American racism that some naively thought had died following the civil rights movement.
As a historical drama about a consequential court case, “Loving” blessedly avoids the big, soaring moments so often inherent in the genre; writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Midnight Special”) has never trafficked in that brand of audience pandering, and he’s certainly not starting now. It’s a heartfelt, low-key story about two people who never wanted to chase headlines or to make history but who nonetheless found themselves at the center of a moment of radical change.
Even though they live in a fairly integrated community — by the standards of the 1950s South — Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga, “Preacher”) are still outliers as a couple. He’s white, she’s black, and the relatives on both sides look askance at their marriage, even after Mildred becomes pregnant with Richard’s child. He insists on making her his wife, however, even if they have to drive up to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony.
Soon thereafter, they’re arrested for violating Virginia’s miscegenation laws, and a judge lets them off with a suspended sentence so long as they agree to leave the state and not return for 25 years. But they can’t stay away: Mildred wants Richard’s mother, a midwife, to deliver their first child, and years later, when one of their kids gets hit by a car in the bustling city streets, she demands that they move back to the country to live near their families.
In films like “Take Shelter,” “Mud” and “Midnight Special,” Nichols has shown himself to be interested in capturing Southern masculine intensity and obsessiveness, and Richard Loving fits the category, particularly when the Lovings sneak back into Virginia and he constantly looks over his shoulder for police or for the people who occasionally leave anonymous threatening notes in his car. It’s a perfectly understandable brand of paranoia, and while “Loving” never includes the kinds of screamed slurs or police brutality we expect in a civil-rights movie, the threat of violence is as palpable as any actual violence might be.
(Once again working with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols knows when to get up close with Edgerton, whose displays of anxiety are his most emotional moments in an otherwise intentionally subdued performance. And composer David Wingo — the go-to scorer for both Nichols and David Gordon Green — captures the film’s Southern flavor without ever tipping into big, manipulative moments.)
Ultimately, the ACLU (represented by comedian Nick Kroll as an ambitious young lawyer) takes on the Lovings’ case — after Mildred writes a letter to attorney general Bobby Kennedy — and their public battle ensues. But “Loving” is less interested in press conferences and courtroom grandstanding than it is in the human costs of discrimination and in the intimate beginnings of societal shifts.
“Loving” scores points for its subtlety — from the performances to the period detail — in portraying a tide of history, but if that discretion works against the film, it’s in the lack of passion between Richard and Mildred. Yes, he’s soft-spoken and spotlight-averse, but even in their intimate scenes together, there’s not much heat between them. All stories about marriage equality are, at heart, love stories, and if there’s a missing ingredient here, it’s loving. A few fireworks wouldn’t have undone the movie’s quiet humanity.