Little Rock-born, Austin-based director/writer Jeff Nichols is back doing what he does best: telling personal stories about Southerners and Midwesterners that reverberate beyond their regional boundaries. He did it with Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud before taking a detour into Spielberg-influenced ’70s sci-fi with this year’s Midnight Special.
He returns to his comfort zone with the slow-burn and calmly effective Loving, a film based on the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, which struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Loving the movie focuses on the couple behind the headlines: Richard and Mildred Loving, who couldn’t have concocted a better last name to sum up their mission, thrust upon them by fate and hard choices, to overturn the Virginia law that nullified their D.C. marriage.
Richard (Joel Edgerton), who’s white, and Mildred (Ruth Negga), who’s black, are part of a poor, isolated, rural Virginia community where the wider society’s walls of segregation seem to have turned semiporous. Black and white kids race cars and socialize together; Richard’s midwife mom (Sharon Blackwood) delivers the neighborhood’s babies.
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There is an underlying tension. At one point, one of Richard’s black friends tells him that no matter how much he hangs around black people, he’s still white. But it’s in this atmosphere that Richard and Mildred apparently fell in love. This isn’t made clear, as viewers meet Richard and Mildred after their relationship is well along; she’s telling him that she’s pregnant.
They decide to drive to D.C. to marry and return to live a quiet, settled life in their hometown. But someone alerts the local police (headed by a particularly unsympathetic Sheriff Brooks, played by Marton Csokas), who smash into their house in the middle of the night to arrest them.
Nichols handles all of this with a quiet grace. Despite the confrontational nature of the subject matter, Loving is not a loud movie. It’s a dramatic whisper instead of a shout.
Helping him are a laconic Edgerton and a restrained Negga, who can say as much with her eyes as could be written on the page. They deliver performances that are moving in their understatement.
True, compared to Mud or Take Shelter, Loving feels a bit underheated. Also, the rest of what was going on in the civil-rights movement at the time seems distant. Here, the political is most definitely personal.
But Edgerton and especially Negga provide enough fire to make Loving heartwarming.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Cinemark West Plano; opens Nov. 18 Cinemark Ridgmar 13, Fort Worth; AMC NorthPark, Dallas; Look Cinemas, Dallas
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon
Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements)
Running time: 123 min.