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Loving
USA 2016
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Running time 123 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3 stars


Synopsis: Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) fell in love with Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) in the small town of Central Point, Virginia and in 1958 asked her to marry him. The only problem in this segregated society was that Richard was white and Mildred was part African-American part Native-American, so they travel to Washington where their interracial marriage is legal. Back home in Virginia, though, that doesn’t matter and the pair are arrested and jailed. They are granted a suspended sentence by local Judge Bazile (David Jensen) on condition that they leave the state and don’t return for the next twenty-five years.  But with all her family in Virginia, Mildred finds it hard to stay away and eventually is convinced to write to Bobbie Kennedy which eventually leads her to young lawyers, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), who steer their case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 2011, Nancy Buirski made The Loving Story, a very good HBO documentary about Richard and Mildred Loving’s 1967 Supreme Court Civil Rights case. Writer/director Nichols credits this doco as a source for his screenplay and after seeing it it’s clear that it’s not only the source for the words on the page but also for much of the visual imagery. In some ways Loving comes off as a second-best remake of that doco with some curious re-positioning into different scenes of things that the real Lovings said on camera. It left me wondering why we really needed this film.

What’s most striking, though, is the care that Nichols has taken to recreate landscapes and settings. It’s all very reverential of the contemporary film clips and television coverage and, most importantly, the Life Magazine photo essay that was shot by Grey Villet (played by Nichols' regular, Michael Shannon, in an all-too-brief but most welcome appearance). Arguably though, there's too much of this: too many scenes showing us Richard's fondness for cars or working as a bricklayer (for some reason he never works on anything above waist height) making the film actually feel longer than its two-hour running time.

That said, Negga is terrific as Mildred, walking perfectly balanced on the fine line between her timidity and fears and her strength, determination and resolution. It’s she that drives the case up until the point at which the lawyers take over. Edgerton, too is good with his low-key Southern drawl and slightly withdrawn demeanour. It’s a hard role because watching the documentary it’s clear that Richard was an unexcitable type; taciturn and private. Edgerton plays this well, but staying true to the real person proves very limiting for the scope of his performance. What jarred, for me, were the performances of Kroll and Bass as the two newbie lawyers who, though out of their depth for a while, manage to cleverly navigate their way toward the landmark decision. Their scenes all skirt perilously close to the comedic and end up feeling like they could well be performing in a different movie.

Whilst this is the second movie in the space of a few months that tackles the issue of a particular interracial marriage as a trigger for social change (the other one was Amma Assante’s United Kingdom) I couldn’t help but be reminded of a much earlier film; Martin Ritt’s impactful 1970 movie The Great White Hope in which  James Earl Jones (pre-Darth Vader) and Jane Alexander were the interracial couple whose struggle is played out against the background of a white supremacist culture that can’t bear a black boxing champion.

It’s the drama and depth of that earlier film that I couldn’t find in Loving nor, for that matter, could I find it in United Kingdom. Both those films seem to suffer from the factuality of their stories which as a result, whilst absorbing, don’t quite translate to good drama on the big screen. Maybe that’s why, in the case of Loving the doco worked better for me.

 

 

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