A film of quiet humanity, "Loving" dramatizes the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple whose relationship paved the way toward the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision striking down the laws against interracial marriage in the United States.
Taking his cues from the Lovings themselves, who were soft-spoken, private people, writer-director Jeff Nichols opts for an understated approach to material that's ripe for Oscar-ready grandstanding and melodrama. With impeccable performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as an anchor, Nichols puts Richard and Mildred's relationship front-and-center, and the result is a warm, deeply-felt drama with a power that only grows more potent as it goes on. It's shocking to be reminded that the story "Loving" tells is such relatively recent history, and the fact that it feels so timely is a sobering reminder that we still have a long way to go.
Living happily in their rural Virginia community, Richard (Edgerton) and Mildred (Negga) have a comfortable life together. But when Richard convinces Mildred to travel to Washington, D.C., (with her father along as a witness) to make it official, the decision promptly leads to their arrest when they return home, in violation of Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws. To avoid further jail time, the Lovings plead guilty and accept the strict condition that they leave the state (as well as their home, friends, and families) for 25 years.
The Lovings trade in the Virginia countryside for a cramped house in the bustling city of D.C. They make due, but after several years of exile -- during which the couple have three children -- being away from their home has begun to slowly eat away at them. In a moment of desperation, Mildred writes to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask for his help. She's soon contacted by Richard Cohen (comedian Nick Kroll), a well-meaning but ambitious lawyer for the ACLU, who's convinced that their case could have larger ramifications and potentially hold the power to permanently alter the law of the land.
In her own quiet way, Mildred is the one more willing to fight, and Negga's performance shows us an unfailingly kind, open-hearted woman whose only wish is to raise her children in the way she sees fit, but whose determination only grows as she realizes that she and her husband have a chance to make a difference for the people like them all across the country. For his part, Richard has little interest in becoming the face of a cause and he'd be happy if he and Mildred were left alone to live their lives away from prying eyes. Edgerton plays him as a thoughtful, decent man whose sole concern is that he does right by his family.
Although thematically worlds away from the other Jeff Nichols film released this year -- the sci-fi thriller "Midnight Special" -- both films share a quiet, almost stripped-down approach to potentially flashy material. Some critics have complained that Nichols is almost too restrained in his methods, but despite the lack of dramatic fireworks, I found this story immensely moving. Aside from one brief scene, we don't even see the case presented before the Supreme Court, but Nichols is confident enough to realize that we don't need to hear the arguments about why the Lovings' relationship deserves recognition; seeing Richard and Mildred and their affection for one another tells us everything we need to know.