Recounting the plight of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), who were persecuted by the state of Virginia for their marriage, “Loving” offers no fancy tricks, but benefits from Nichols’ gentle approach, which leaves room for the two performances to shine.
Unlike the 2011 documentary “The Loving Story” and the 1996 TV movie “Mr. & Mrs. Loving,” Nichols focuses almost exclusively on the couple’s bond against menacing odds. The film begins in medias res, with Richard and Mildred already a happy couple anticipating their first child and considering plans to build a house in their rural town, despite resentment from their respective families. Already, Nichols has veered off the traditional path, setting aside the details of their courtship and simply taking their attraction for granted; viewers can fill in the details. Richard’s valiant decision to get married in nearby D.C. punctures the idyllic scenario, as the act prompts local authorities to lock both of them up. With a lawyer in tow, they’re offered a pair of mutually unsatisfying options: Stay in jail, or leave the state for 25 years.
Leading up that critical moment, Nichols sets the stage for a soft-spoken narrative in which his actors’ faces tell the story. As Richard, Edgerton’s ideally cast to play a low key character less invested in grand statements than maintaining his private life. It’s Negga, however, who truly comes into her own as the movie’s agent of change. Her darting eyes speak volumes about a mounting drive to rectify the situation as their family expands to three children, even though she can’t fully put the process into words. That’s to the credit of Nichols’ elegant screenplay, which pares down the events so that the emphasis is taken off the legal proceedings and avoids any overdone speechifying. The movie belongs to the Lovings’ personal needs rather than the sweeping reform that emerged from it.
When the couple resettles of out of state, it’s only a matter of time before Mildred catches wind of the Civil Rights movement on television and decides to ask the government for help. That’s when “Loving” dips into judicial territory with the arrival of eager young attorney Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll, in a muted step beyond his usual broad comedic routine), who goads the Lovings into working with him to rectify their situation. But whereas some movies might use this development to catapult into a broader exploration of the case, “Loving” hovers on its precipice, only acknowledging the media’s interest in the family when it intrudes on their lives. It’s a disarmingly subtle means of adding new context to the historical legacy by building it from the ground up.
To that end, Nichols excels as usual at developing an immersive world. Aided by Adam Stone’s elegant cinematography, Nichols captures his characters in neatly-framed closeups and wide shots that accentuate the empty landscapes surrounding the Lovings’ home, highlighting the extent to which they remain isolated from the bigger picture of their case.
At times, the narrative overemphasizes this conceit with garden-variety lines about their predicament’s broader impact around the country (“You were just born in the wrong place,” consoles one friend), but Richard’s resistance toward thinking in those terms while shielding his family from the spotlight provides an intriguing source of suspense: menacing possibilities lurk around every corner even as the movie chugs along at its nuanced pace.
Rather than showcasing epic showdowns or clashing ideals, Nichols gives us a somber exchange between Richard and his disapproving mother (Sharon Blackwood); later, he contemplates his options with a handful of slurred words over drinks with some friends at a bar. Negga, meanwhile, handily shoulders the challenge of radiating an activist’s passion without sounding shrill. The textured role is readymade for Nichols’ universe of somber exchanges and meaningful stares, offering a welcome challenge to the overstatement that mars so many Hollywood melodramas.
Still, the movie’s light touch at times makes it difficult to engage with the stakes at hand, and Nichols’ reverence for his couple’s deep bond is practically so sacred he seems resistant to show any of their flaws. “Loving” is a tender ode that still regards its subjects in near-sacred terms. It’s a far cry from the dreary soul-searching that percolates throughout his other films, and in that sense represents an even wider commercial gambit than the sci-fi hook of “Midnight Special.” If “Loving” marks Nichols’ greatest step towards mainstream recognition, it’s a quietly progressive one.