Jeff Nichols, the writer-director responsible for great films such as Take Shelter and Mud, presents us his next film about an interracial couple whose marriage is prosecuted as illegal by the state of Virginia in the 1950s. Loving stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as the titular couple, and the film is by and large a platform for their performances.
The film begins with shots of their faces awash in soft shadow, a quiet discussion of an impending pregnancy an intriguing locale to start off the film.
This quietness is the defining characteristic of the relationship and thus the film as a whole. It is a love told with an undercurrent of passion and a surface of reserved understanding. Thus, when the quietness is disrupted both audibly and physically by the authorities, the stark contrast brings about the dramatic thrust of the narrative.
From here we see the rise of Edgerton’s outstanding performance. His character at a dilemma of conscience, his passivity threatened, we see him oscillate between defiance and resignation.
As he sits in the police chief’s office, attempting to get his wife out on bail, we see the internal conundrum in his shrunken posture and downward-looking, darting eyes. He never makes eye contact with the officer as he struggles to understand his position enough to fight back. Edgerton’s grumbling delivery similarly shows his passivity, a desire for a simple life that has been denied him.
Negga’s performance is more muted, but by no means is it less satisfactory. Her eyes are a natural well of emotional range that speaks just as loud as the few lines of dialogue she has in the film.
The hyper-focus on these two characters proves problematic at times when supporting characters are given screen time. When the two are asked to leave the state, the emotional heft of Mildred’s separation from her family is lessened by the family’s lack of a role up to that point.
The film could also benefit from a fat trimming. The middle portion of the film features some scenes that serve only to pad the runtime past the two-hour mark. The movie already moving at a slow pace, these scenes can be quite nagging as they do not further character nor plot.
Loving is deliberate, meditative in its pursuit of social problem drama. This may act as a detraction to the film’s success depending on how one views it. The power of the film is largely internal, and as such it lacks a visual urgency. Still, the acting keeps up the emotion of the film enough to provide something of note, and specific shot choices by Nichols and his cinematographer keep things interesting.
Loving plays off the strengths of its two leads to shirk the sanitized, by the book period narrative. Only groundbreaking as a mainstream introduction for Ruth Negga and a full realization of Joel Edgerton’s dramatic range, the film is a drama with a tad more emotional resonance than your average Oscar-bait feature.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)