Jeff Nichols’s Loving somewhat boldly attempts to embody the spirit of its subject without traditional movie moments. Depicting the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), whose marriage ultimately led to the Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of interracial marriage, the film honestly shows their hesitancy to the spotlight and their humble existence in 1960s Virginia. But while Loving mirrors their disposition in the face of their predicament – don’t expect dramatic courtroom scenes or much invasion from snarling racists – neither does it tell us much about them. The embodiment unfortunately isn’t illuminating to Richard and Mildred, and the stylist risk doesn’t work if we don’t also understand them.
The modest approach is somewhat of Nichols’s favored point of entry over his filmography; earlier this year his Midnight Special similarly refused genre rules, but it’s aloofness was one of its more intriguing (and love-it-or-hate-it) aspects. Take Shelter, still his best film, was all paranoia and psychosis and showed that he can achieve this embodiment in the unfolding of the film. Loving finds him at his most unassuming, an emotionally intuitive film that simply doesn’t work as well as it should.
In some ways, the circle of people around Richard and Mildred are more clearly drawn and deliver some complicated moments. Family members of both half of the couple deliver unexpected perspective that a more stereotypically calibrated film might not find the time for, but these moments fall flat for the leads themselves. Nick Kroll is a charming relief as the Loving’s lawyer, providing a necessary picture of the world outside their bubble. It’s not that Nichols’s vision wouldn’t work, it’s that by eliminating the perceived cliches of courtroom and civil rights era movies, he also struggles to find his own points of entry. You simply want more for a film with such good intentions and subversion to movie norms.
All of which isn’t to say that the film is without a pulse, the credit to which belongs almost squarely on Ruth Negga’s shoulders. The film is at its best when it gives the actress space for Negga to play the full emotional complexity of the scene, her long and nearly silent stretches being the most absorbing in the film. Without tics or added business, she presents a believable performance of being and feeling that achieves more than the film itself for breadth without deceiving its low temperature. Had Joel Edgerton provided more than his usual mannered flatness it could have been quite the powerful screen couple.
A useful experiment in avoiding the easy machinations of genre and stylistic truth to subject, Loving isn’t quite a satisfying film or an immersive one. But with the oceanic work from Negga and her low-register passionate performance, it is something close to unmissable.