Amid national soul-searching about racial progress or the lack thereof, “Loving” is a historical tale that feels very much of the moment. Seen through the prism of its central couple, it’s blessed with the uplifting hallmarks of an old-fashioned “feel-good” movie, exploring anti-miscegenation laws that persisted for years after the birth of America’s biracial president.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star Richard and Mildred Loving — even the surname is almost too good to be true — a white man and black woman who were forced to leave Virginia after marrying in 1958. With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, they eventually challenged the state, in a case that eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the movie makes clear, the Lovings — and Richard in particular — were reluctant participants in history. Mostly, they loved each other and their children and simply wanted to be allowed to live in peace, near Mildred’s family in rural Virginia.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ devotion to telling the story from that angle is buoyed by the quiet dignity that his stars (an Australian and Irishwoman, incidentally, adopting dead-on Southern accents) bring to their understated performances. It also results in a slow-moving film that sacrifices some, but not all, of its power in focusing so steadfastly on the micro over the macro.
“Loving” opens with Richard and Mildred already a couple, eliding over a courtship that would have been interesting to see, if only in brief. Similarly, the story gives relatively short shrift to courtroom jockeying and strategizing — and the young lawyers who champion their cause, played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass — making the Lovings rather passive vessels for the change they helped bring to fruition.
In part that approach makes “Loving” a more singular and at times affecting movie, capturing as it does Richard’s apprehension every time he sees the dust from a car heading up their country road. Similarly, Mildred’s longing for the life she knew — during what amounts to their exile in Washington, D.C., where languid fields give way to paved, well-trafficked streets — is almost palpable.
Even so, the movie could have used more of a spark from the supporting players, who include Michael Shannon in a small but significant cameo as a Life magazine photographer who comes to profile them.
Perhaps because of its narrow view, “Loving” delivers the biggest emotional wallop in its closing crawl, at least for those who haven’t bothered to Google the family in advance. The timeline also connects the Lovings’ story in a roundabout way back to Barack Obama, whose presidency has both exposed the gains achieved over the last half-century and the considerable work that’s left to be done.
Edgerton — somewhat handcuffed by Richard’s simple, taciturn manner — and especially Negga (currently seen in AMC’s “Preacher”) are clearly candidates for awards consideration, and the stirring subject matter and romantic virtues could help put the movie in that conversation as well.
Still, for a film that spends so much time dealing with arbitrary borders — from state lines to rules designed to keep people apart — “Loving” doesn’t quite bridge the divide between very good and actual greatness.
“Loving” opens in select U.S. cities November 4. It’s rated PG-13.