Writer-director Jeff Nichols approaches interracial marriage in 1950s Virginia with subtlety and quietude in his fifth feature, Loving, writes Natalie Stendall.
Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving who crossed state lines to marry in 1958, it’s a small scale drama that doesn’t scream about the big issues at its heart.
On their return to Virginia, Richard (Joel Egerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) are quickly arrested for their illegal marriage and forced to leave the state.
In the years that follow, they embark on a court case, but Nichols focusses instead on the couple’s domestic lives.
They have children and work hard, the story is slow but the unshakable bond between Richard and Mildred is compelling. The painful separation from their home and family is palpable.
Loving stands in stark contrast to Amma Asante’s romantic drama about the interracial marriage between Prince Seretse of Botswana and British clerk Ruth Williams.
Where Asante’s A United Kingdom homes in on the international stir and political consequences of the marriage, Loving confines the civil rights movement to Richard and Mildred’s television set.
For Mildred, the rallies and protests seem remote. We’re a million miles from Ava DuVernay’s Selma here, absorbed in the lives of an ordinary couple whose only desire is to live as man and wife.
Nichols manages to explore a remarkable court case without any courtroom drama. The Lovings avoid the limelight and the interest of the media is a growing source of tension.
Nichols is a filmmaker growing in confidence. While his earlier films Take Shelter and Midnight Special are stuffed with raw emotion, here Nichols allows his actors to dominate the frame and tell the story with utmost delicacy.
Ruth Negga - Oscar nominated for her role here - transfixes the camera with subtle expressions and glances. Egerton is harder to read, holding his emotion behind an often impenetrable gaze.
His sadness and doubt are glimpsed in a mere handful of scenes. Instead audiences are to understand Richard’s attachment to Mildred from a softening of body language, a naturalness that evokes the very soul of marriage. The distance Egerton puts between audiences and his character may be off-putting for some, particularly those hoping to glimpse a passionate romance brimming with declarations. Nichols skips the beginnings of their relationship entirely. Mildred is already pregnant when we meet her: the couple are very much in love and determined to marry.
Loving is a small scale, domestic drama, beautiful in its subtlety. Nichols isn’t angry but quietly indignant, keeping the historical importance of the story very much on the back-burner. This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those looking for a slow-burning, quiet drama that rejects Hollywood sentimentality will not be disappointed.