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Loving

I can’t tell you how worried I was that I’d have to miss out on this one.

Loving comes to us from Jeff Nichols, who’s been one of my must-watch filmmakers ever since Take Shelter. It’s also a movie with such exceptional talents as Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, and Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon. All in the service of a real-life story about a Southern couple fighting for the legitimacy of their interracial marriage. I was instantly sold, and thrilled to see it get some awards love at the Golden Globes.

I want you to understand just how sky-high my expectations were for this one. Because when I say that it failed to meet those expectations, that’s not exactly saying much.

This is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, respectively played by Edgerton and Negga. After she gets pregnant, the two of them drive up to get married in Washington D.C. But of course, the local authorities in Virginia circa 1958 don’t care that the marriage is technically legal, and they sure as hell don’t care that Mildred is pregnant. Virginia law dictates that their marriage is illegal and immoral, and nobody gives any particular kind of shit how the two of them are treated.

After an especially rough (albeit brief) time in jail, the Lovings are offered a plea bargain: They can avoid prison time if they plead guilty and leave the state of Virginia for at least 25 years. So it is that they’re exiled from Virginia — though they eventually come back to live there in secret nonetheless — until the ACLU agrees to take their case. Legal proceedings continued until the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that banning interracial marriage is unconstitutional.

It’s a timely story for a multitude of obvious reasons, and all the basic themes you’d expect from the premise are represented. Though I’m glad to say that there are a couple of new twists here and there. My favorite example concerns a scene in which Richard is very forcibly reminded that he’s white. It’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of, considering that he hangs out with so many black people and he’s treated by other white people as if he was black. Yet the fact remains that if Richard divorced his wife — or at least walked into some scenario in which nobody knew whom he was married to — he’d be just another white guy with all pursuant rights and privileges. That was actually a very intriguing point, especially in the way it’s presented.

Another neat little angle concerns the media. As the Lovings are going to the Supreme Court, it stands to reason that journalists would come calling to provide the kind of national attention that could bring sympathy from federal justices. Though it also brings the kind of local attention that could put our central couple in mortal peril. Similarly, the Lovings have to decide if they’ll actually be there for the Supreme Court case, listening to the opposing lawyers call their marriage a sin against nature and their children unholy abominations. In both cases, it comes down to very real and justifiable fear of what the Lovings are up against. Then again, if the Lovings can’t live openly and proud of what they have, then what are they fighting for?

Aside from that, it’s basically more of the same stuff about race and marriage you’ve all heard a million times before, though that doesn’t make the message any less important or compelling. What’s more, this movie is actually a lot more understated than most other films on this subject from the same period. There’s maybe only one or two paper-thin racists, and they’re both out of the film for good before the halfway point. The N-bomb is only dropped maybe two or three times.

That said, the film may have been a little too understated for its own good. There are several long quiet stretches that seem to go nowhere, and only maybe half of them amount to anything. To be fair, A LOT of these pauses contribute to the terrific sense of atmosphere and portrayal of paranoia that served Nichols so well in his previous efforts. The film even has a couple of legitimately solid fake-outs (an especially great one concerns a slow-mo shot of a rope getting thrown over a tree branch). Even so, the trick is hardly 100 percent effective and the bulk of the slower moments only serve to drag down the pacing.

A good deal of that, I’m sorry to say, comes from our lead characters. The good news is that Edgerton and Negga both prove themselves to be phenomenal actors, conveying so much about their characters without a word spoken. The bad news is that they kinda have to. Most of the characters — the Lovings included — are conveyed as simple Southern folk with a thick accent to match, inarticulate and of few words. Great nonverbal performances are a strong asset, but that only gets us so far when the dialogue is so sparse and hard to hear. As a result, the characters are sadly opaque despite all efforts to the contrary.

Even so, it’s enough to get by. We can plainly see for ourselves that Richard is the simpler, quieter, and more stubborn of the two; while Mildred is the more sensible and open one. Richard without Mildred would be little more than a caveman, and Mildred without Richard would be a meek and aimless black woman in a white man’s world. The two of them complement each other in such a way that they visibly and desperately need each other, and that’s more than enough to get us emotionally invested in their marriage.

As for the supporting cast, there isn’t much to say. Michael Shannon only gets a cameo role at the start of the third act, but it’s a show-stealer. I was also surprised to see Nick Kroll take a more dramatic role as an ACLU lawyer, but he does a remarkable job of making the character just barely oafish enough to engender sympathy. Otherwise, this is very much Edgerton and Negga’s show to the point where precious few supporting characters are even worth mentioning.

That said, a miscellaneous note is due on the subject of the Lovings’ kids. As this is a film that takes place over several years, the kids work beautifully as a device to keep track of how much time has passed. Even if the kids themselves barely have much in the way of character development or even dialogue.

Also, however slowly the movie may be paced, it doesn’t make the common biopic problem of spreading itself too thin. The whole movie is tightly focused on the subject of this interracial marriage and all the societal problems they have to deal with. And since that’s easily the most interesting detail about these characters — not to mention the single overarching thing that affects everything else in their lives — it works out well.

Loving is a perfectly good movie, but there’s definitely a sense of untapped potential. It’s a shame that there’s so much ineffective white noise mixed in with the moments of genuine tension, and the dialogue could have been vastly improved. Even so, it’s a moving and beautifully acted production of an important story that needed to be told.

This is definitely worth a watch, but it’s hardly like the film was unfairly snubbed a “Best Picture” nod.

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