Review: In ‘Loving,’ the revolution power of a true love

Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” about Richard and Mildred Loving, is about simple-minded people, simply being in love.

Both born and raised in the hills of Central Point, Virginia, the Lovings wed in 1958. But five weeks later, while Mildred was pregnant, they were roused from their bed at 2 a.m. by a Caroline County sheriff, put in jail and later ordered out of the state for 25 years.

In Nichols’ tender, graceful film, a love story progresses naturally, beautifully, with sudden, surreal interruptions — like the middle-of-the-night arrest — that play like abductions. And that’s essentially what they were. Richard was white and Mildred was black, and that was enough to make their marriage a crime in 1958 Virginia.

The Lovings would, after years raising their family in Washington D.C., spark the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Virginia, that unanimously struck down all anti-miscegenation laws and declared marriage an inherent right.

But “Loving” has none of the familiar dramatics of a social justice narrative. It’s about civil rights revolutionaries who weren’t in the slightest revolutionary. The only time “civil rights” is uttered in the film is when a relative of Mildred’s advises, while watching Martin Luther King march in far-off Washington: “You need to get you some civil rights” — like she was suggesting a new carburetor.

Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a taciturn bricklayer, with a buzz cut that would look conservative in the Army. Mildred (Ruth Negga), too, is meek, with big, soulful eyes that belie a quiet inner strength. They’re poor, little educated and overwhelmingly humble.

Edgerton and Negga spend a significant part of the film with downcast eyes, too modest to insist on anything except to be left alone. Richard wants to build them a home in a field half a mile from where Mildred grew up. Mildred wants Richard’s mom to deliver her children.

They aren’t chatty people. When, in the film’s first scene, Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant, his face is at first stoic, and we fear a harsh response. But then comes a smile, huge and warm, and the answer, “Good.”

The movie is spoken largely in their faces and their intimate, telling gestures: arms draped around one another, a head laid on the shoulder of another. The body language comes directly from the tremendous photos taken of the couple by Grey Villet for Life Magazine , as well as the 16mm black-and-white footage shot by Hope Ryden, a central component of Nancy Buirski’s 2012 documentary, “The Loving Story.”

The force of Nichols’ film is a steadily accumulating one. The Lovings, played with exquisite quietude by Negga and Edgerton, are steadfast and pure — arguably to such a degree as to risk stiffness.

Even as their case swells with out-of-town lawyers and the potential to make history, they are little affected by the gravity. They don’t go to hear the Supreme Court hearing; “Tell the judge I love my wife,” is Richard’s complete message to his attorney.

But the absence of larger histrionics is what gives “Loving” its understated power. Nichols, the talented Arkansas native who made “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” has stood out, in part, for his good-sense restraint as a filmmaker. His rural landscapes are richly American, with soil running through their fingers. His protagonists are soft-spoken, and the deeper truths all interior and unknowable.

In “Loving,” the full impact isn’t felt until the final words, ones that will stay with moviegoers after the lights have come up. Remembering her husband years after his later death, Mildred is quoted with fitting — and no less moving — simplicity. “I miss him. He took care of me.”

COMMENTS