Overview: An interracial couple are sentenced to prison in 1958. Focus Features; 2016; 123 Minutes.
A Star Still Being Born: Jeff Nichols has quickly become one of film’s strongest and most reliable dramatic directors, concerning himself with small but powerful core values in big narrative ways. Loving, a biopic about an interracial couple in 1958 – the white Richard Loving and his half-black, half-Cherokee wife Mildred – falls directly in line with the Nichols’ trend, tackling a landmark court case but focusing primarily on the individual lives of those involved. After the couple is exiled from their home in Virginia and corralled into an urban Washington D.C. city, one whose landscape and architecture is intentionally presented as a symbolic prison, the begin a fight for the right to marry. The film, for obvious reasons, could not have come at a more apt moment.
Despite the magnitude of the subject matter (a court case which sets precedence for marriage equality), Nichols directs with specificity and intimacy. He glances over what would appear to be the climax of the film and skips immediately to the result instead, portraying the connections present in such a refreshingly understated and unmanipulative way. Because of this, he is able to imbue the film with significance in a more genuine language. This emotional reserve of overstatement lends the small, tender sequences more power. Similarly, the contrast between the two lovers – Joel Edgerton’s Richard is stoic while Ruth Negga’s Mildred is optimistic and cheerful – strengthens their bond with a lean dialogue, a script with no needless fat. Every kiss and hug and every shed tear is economically earned.
The Craftsman: Adam Stone’s cinematography further distances the film from the generally lifeless crowd of biopic mush. Beautiful insert shots of nature contrast the ugliness of society and create a comparison between the free idyll of the countryside and the imprisonment, both literal and figurative, within city-life. In doing so, Stone and Nichols successfully up the ante, convincing us that life in the countryside together is worth the nine year fight to that freedom. In one particularly emotional scene near the beginning of the film, the couple embraces in the darkness; the image is tender and intimate and lit so that only silhouettes of people can be seen. Color is erased. A powerful score from Nichols’ longtime composer David Wingo heightens this and the rest of the film.
Edgerton and Negga are standouts here, both drawing emotion in unorthodox ways. Rather than yell or resort to outbursts, the former stays mostly silent, choking back all that we know is felt, and the latter exudes an effervescent demeanor, admirable in her hope for the future in spite of such dreary odds. With great chemistry, they silently demand attention and sympathy, but never pander.
Overall: With Loving, Negga and Edgerton have surely emerged as the year’s first definite Oscar nominations in their respective categories, and Loving too, perhaps, for Best Picture.