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Nichols' 'Loving' paints low-key portrait of humble interracial couple in 1950s Virginia


November 24, 2016

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"LOVING" — 3 stars — Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton; PG-13 (thematic elements); in general release

“Loving” is a low-key movie about a low-key couple whose actions proved to be anything but.

“Loving” is the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia that came from almost unrecognizable circumstances to impact national marriage law during the civil rights movement.

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) is a humble brick mason, working out of a small community in Virginia. Not only is he white, but he’s got bleached blond hair. Not only is he humble, but he appears to be working on the same wall for most of the film and never getting very far.

The apple of his eye is Mildred (Ruth Negga), an African-American woman from the same town and the same modest circumstances. From the looks of it, Richard tends to run in Mildred’s circles more than the other way around, but aside from a few dirty looks from a group of standard-issue 1950s rednecks, most people leave them be.

Then Mildred discovers she’s pregnant, and she and Richard decide to get married. At that point, an invisible line is crossed. Fearing the hassles of Virginia state law, the Lovings get married in nearby Washington, D.C., but upon their return, they are taken from their bed in the middle of the night and thrown in jail.

A lawyer named Frank Beazley (Bill Camp) is able to get the Lovings a plea deal whereby they will plead guilty of entering into their illegal nuptials but avoid prison in exchange for leaving the state for 25 years. They agree, but almost get thrown in jail again when Mildred persuades Richard to return to Virginia so his mother can deliver their baby.

Once they are past that scrape, the Lovings return to their expatriate home in Washington, D.C., to start raising their family, and “Loving” shifts into a more public gear. The American Civil Liberties Union picks up their case, hoping a Supreme Court ruling will overturn interracial marriage laws throughout the country, and the threat of a prison sentence is replaced by the tension of the world looking in on the private affairs of a married couple who just want to be left alone.

Here is where the smallness of “Loving” truly resonates. Throughout director Jeff Nichols’ film, even when the Lovings are in the middle of a Supreme Court case, the world feels a million miles away. We see a quiet couple that lives in silence while the nation watches to see how their fate is decided.

At one point, a Life magazine photographer named Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) travels to Virginia to visit with the family for a few days, taking a few candid pictures of the Lovings, including an iconic image of them happily watching TV on their couch. It’s a quiet and intimate moment that resonates in a quiet and intimate movie.

The unseen weight of a real-life story lends credibility to “Loving,” but the faithful narrative also mutes the tension of the film. Early on, the threat of jail time is real and ominous but once the legal case gets rolling, even the Lovings become sideline participants, choosing to stay home during the Supreme Court deliberation, turning “Loving” into a linear documentary as much as a drama.

That being said, the strengths of “Loving” far outweigh its weaknesses, and the subtlety of its tone and its skillful performances are a perfect match for its humble message about love enduring racial boundaries.

"Loving" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements; running time: 123 minutes.

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