I keep waiting for Jeff Nichols to blow me away. I know he can do it. I’ve seen everything he’s done since Take Shelter, and I’ve admired all of it, recognizing a greatly talented filmmaker at work. Yet so far I haven’t seen that one film of his that makes me think, “Yes! He’s made a masterpiece!” I was hoping that perhaps Loving might be that film, since this account of the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in the United States came in with glowing reviews from the film festivals in Cannes and Toronto. Maybe the lack of a supernatural element that was present in his previous films might do the trick. Alas, no. This well-intentioned film is so bound up in cotton wool that it doesn’t have the impact its story deserves.
It begins in the middle of things in 1958, with Virginia auto mechanic Richard Perry Loving (Joel Edgerton) having already met and fallen in love with Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) and asking her to marry him. A part-time construction worker as well, Richard has already picked out and bought a plot of land in the countryside where he intends to build a house for her. They go to Washington, D.C., to get married, but the laws of the commonwealth of Virginia flatly state that their marriage is illegal. They leave the state under threat of prison, but after years of inconveniences and insults to their dignity, Mildred fatefully writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who refers her to the ACLU lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) who’ll persuade the Court to strike down the nation’s anti-miscegenation laws for them.
My lukewarmness on this movie might stem from my lifelong indifference to Edgerton’s acting — the Australian’s wealth of performances has yet to leave a single impression on me. Yet the problem seems larger. The Lovings appear to have been quiet, nonconfrontational people, so it would have done violence to their story to make them the center of a rousing, Hollywood-style inspirational drama. Nichols wants to do justice to this side of them, but in doing so, he’s made a film so muffled and polite that it never takes off. The movie doesn’t do enough to connect the Lovings’ victory with the freedom that all of us, most recently including the gay people among us, now enjoy.
Nichols does well to capture how oppressive the Lovings find big-city life, and Michael Shannon turns up as always in Nichols’ films, here as a Life magazine photographer who takes a famous picture of the couple. Particularly fine is Negga, an English actress who you may have seen on TV’s Preacher or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., showing how Mildred comes to take point on the litigation. These are nice to have, undoubtedly. Loving needed more, though.
Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Rated PG-13.