Interracial relationships are sadly still a taboo in modern society, but fifty years ago they were an absolute no-go. In his second Cannes competition outing after 2012’s Mud, Jeff Nichols returns to the Croisette with Loving, a period ode to an interracial relationship that changed history.
In 1958 Virginia, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) fearfully reveals to her partner Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) that she is expecting his child. To her relief, Richard responds, “That’s good!” So that their child will not be born out of wedlock, Mildred and Richard make an expedient effort to get married in Washington, D.C., as interracial marriage is not recognized in Virginia, and offspring of mixed marriages are considered “bastards.” As they try to fly under the radar, living as a couple in Virginia, they are inevitably discovered and apprehended by the state. Offered an ultimatum of either spending a year in jail or pleading guilty and moving out of state, the Lovings opt for the latter. A decade goes by, and after one of their children is hit by a car, Mildred realizes that she is uncomfortable raising her children away from home. Determined to take her family back to Virginia, Mildred calls the American Civil Liberties Union, prepared to fight against the laws that prevent this from being a possibility, unaware of the pivotal role she and her family will play in a historical turning point in civil liberties.
There will be some who love Loving for its desire to subvert traditional narrative in a film about an important moment in history. Instead of focusing on the procedural build-up to its social victory, it underplays these moments, which some will find refreshing and subtle. It would have been brilliant if history took a backseat to the romance. Unfortunately, there are hardly any interactions that build a sense of history between the two, an impression of what makes their relationship unique, why they are drawn to each other, or if they are even in love at all. In failing to flesh out a sense of who Mildred and Richard Loving are, and in choosing to let the big moments play off screen, while still alluding to the importance of the situation (in one rare dramatic beat, it is proclaimed that “this could change the whole Constitution of the United States!“), Loving seems unfocused. Without a clear sense of where to go with its minimalistic concept, Loving likely would have benefitted from following the tried and true recipe of how to tackle historical stories.
Ruth Negga, in her highly anticipated breakthrough performance as Mildred Loving, does quite a lot by doing very little. Her face is beautifully expressive, charting the emotions that suggest a lifetime of oppression, a theme that Loving sadly is conscious to evade. Yet, while these moments are convincing, and great acting in isolation, they would certainly play better as clips out of context. Collectively, they work to build Mildred Loving as an often fascinating, often haunting if enigmatic symbol, but fail to add up to a cohesive portrait of who this woman is, though this is more a fault of Loving‘s screenplay and Jeff Nichols’ execution of his vision than of her performance. Though her potential tour de force is compromised by poor direction and editing, Negga’s captivating and quietly assured screen presence is a huge promise that, assuming opportunity arises, she has the chops to fulfill. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton’s dive into catatonic mannerisms and mumbling will to many people be instantly reminiscent of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (another culturally illicit romance), but his characterization is shallow. In what could have been a key moment, Richard, who is steadfast in his decision not to attend court proceedings, is asked if there is any message he would like to convey to the courts. “Tell them I love my wife,” he responds, but there is little in his performance that makes this declaration resonate.
It is commendable that Loving is firm in its decision not to be emotionally manipulative, but it also fails to be truly probing as well. As such, left with little to chew on and missing peaks or climax, many in Loving‘s willing audience will find themselves parched for reasons to celebrate the Lovings’ triumph. Loving could never be accused of a lack of conviction on the part of its filmmakers: director Jeff Nichols shared that “My wife said, ‘I love you, but if you don’t make this movie, I’m going to divorce you’,” and Ruth Negga called this “the most beautiful love story that’s ever been told.” Everyone involved has a reverence for the story they try to tell, yet somehow this passion is lost in translation.