LOV­ING

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

Jeff Ni­chols eOne Films

Mil­dred and Richard Lov­ing were a work­ing-class cou­ple whose fight to live legally as hus­band and wife went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where Lov­ing v. Vir­ginia in­val­i­dated anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws in 1967. It’s a story with all the mak­ings of an Os­car bell-ringer, but Lov­ing (in na­tional re­lease) failed to make a dent in this year’s derby. That’s a tes­ta­ment to the film’s di­rec­tor, Jeff Ni­chols, whose re­fusal to adorn his tale with scenes of barn­storm­ing in­dig­na­tion nicely hon­ours his less-than-pro­lix leads. Played by Joel Edger­ton and Ruth Negga without a trace of ac­torly con­de­scen­sion, the Lov­ings are un­demon­stra­tive to a fault, ex­cept with each other.

The pair are dragged out of their bed by po­lice in the mid­dle of the night, and forced to leave Vir­ginia, one of 24 states that out­lawed in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, to avoid jail. Liv­ing in a cramped du­plex in Washington, DC, and cut off from friends and fam­ily, Mil­dred frets that her boys are grow­ing up without the space to stretch their legs. She even­tu­ally writes to Bobby Kennedy and is put in touch with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, whose lawyers see a chance to re­vise the Con­sti­tu­tion for good.

Ni­chols, still in his 30s, is an Arkansas na­tive. His first two (and best) fea­tures, 2007’s Shot­gun Sto­ries and 2011’s Take Shel­ter, are sto­ries of bib­li­cal fore­bod­ing, in which work­ing-class whites are buf­feted by cos­mic forces be­yond their con­trol. His sub­se­quent films have been less idio­syn­cratic. He’s tried out star ve­hi­cles (2012’s Mud, with Matthew McConaughey) and genre (2016’s Midnight Spe­cial ). Lov­ing marks a re­turn to the do­mes­tic scale of his ear­lier films, this time in the more straight­for­ward key of the mes­sage movie.

The new film dis­plays his tal­ent for build­ing dread, aided by the brood­ing, anx­i­ety-in­duc­ing am­bi­ent com­po­si­tions of his reg­u­lar com­poser, David Wingo. Vi­o­lence is au­gured but never ar­rives. Richard finds a brick sit­ting on the pas­sen­ger seat of his car, in­stead of through the wind­shield. A glow­er­ing sher­iff (played by Kiwi ac­tor Mar­ton Csokas) offhand­edly threat­ens a preg­nant Mil­dred with rape, sec­onds be­fore re­leas­ing her. There’s a rhythm to it, like waves that peter out just short of crest­ing and crash­ing down.

Ni­chols wrote the script, and he sticks stead­fastly to his cen­tral cou­ple, even when the ac­tion’s else­where. The Lov­ings don’t at­tend the Supreme Court, and we glimpse only one im­pres­sion­is­tic frag­ment of the trial it­self. The film con­cludes with the oblig­a­tory ti­tle cards fill­ing in what hap­pened next, stan­dard for the biopic and typ­i­cally lily-gild­ing. But Lov­ing’s coda, stark but faith­ful to its he­roes for sheer lack of self-pity, packs an emo­tional wal­lop that the film had seemed primed to with­hold.

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