What anyone remembers from U.S. history class of the civil rights case Loving v. Virginia is the aptness of the couple’s name. What’s been forgotten—or more likely never even mentioned—is that this case, which invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, took nine years to resolve and during most of that time Richard and Mildred Loving were forced to live outside the borders of their home state of Virginia, raising their children away from their extended families.
It’s this very real hardship that writer/director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Midnight Special”) focuses on in his latest release. At first glance, the subject seems unusual for Nichols, who has carved out a niche in independent film by crafting anxiety-inducing allegories in which threat comes from more ambiguous sources. For Nichols, who adapted the screenplay from an HBO documentary by Nancy Buirski, this is clearly first and foremost a love story, but ultimately it’s one that can’t be told without including the menacing forces that exerted their pressure on the marriage.
Of course it would be impossible for Nichols to tell this story without the benefit of a contemporary perspective. Yet, his narrative avoids the patronizing trap of looking back. In fact, Nichols’ approach to the screenplay is to stay true to the natural forward momentum of a couple first falling in love and then raising their family. In the absence of any righteous speeches that the audience would have no choice but to agree with and even one-dimensional villains (except for Martin Csokas as a particularly hateful sheriff), the story’s authenticity is affecting and heartfelt.
As a result, Nichols has given actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga a rare gift for their portrayals of Richard and Mildred Loving—they’re allowed to inhabit their characters and perform to the gold standard of storytelling; they show instead of tell. Both are up to the challenge, but Edgerton in particular is suited to the quiet performance. In one of the tensest scenes in the movie in which a friend proposes that Richard could just simply walk away, the creases in the Aussie’s expansive forehead reveal more about Richard Loving’s thoughts than any words he’d ever dare say.
Even when the unjust situation in which the Lovings are obliged to endure comes to the attention of ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll), the film avoids devolving into a mere courtroom drama. Nichols deftly hints at less-than-heroic motives for the lawyer while still allowing the audience to root for the victory of a marriage that needs no fanfare or spectacle. Like Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the LIFE photographer skilled in catching his subjects in their natural positions, Nichols exposes them for who they are: genuine, certain, loving.