Race laws put love to the test

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

n March 18, 1966, Life mag­a­zine pub­lished a prom­i­nent ar­ti­cle headed “The Crime of Be­ing Mar­ried”. The ar­ti­cle was ac­com­pa­nied by some pow­er­ful im­ages, pho­tographed by Grey Vil­let, of 26-year-old Mil­dred and 33-year-old Richard Lov­ing, a cou­ple charged by the Com­mon­wealth of Vir­ginia with the crime of mis­ce­gena­tion. Fifty years later it prob­a­bly seems to most peo­ple un­be­liev­able that mar­riage be­tween races was con­sid­ered a crime in some of Amer­ica’s southern states, but then maybe in 50 years, or less, most peo­ple may be amazed at Aus­tralia’s re­luc­tance to le­galise same-sex mar­riage.

That’s the in­evitable sub­text against which Jeff Ni­chols’s sober, re­strained drama of in­jus­tice and persecution un­folds. Lov­ing be­gins in ru­ral Vir­ginia in 1958. Richard is a “white trash” man­ual worker, not well ed­u­cated, not very ar­tic­u­late; he’s bril­liantly played by Joel Edger­ton as a man who keeps him­self to him­self and just gets on with his job as a builder. Richard seems to have lived all his life in prox­im­ity to his African-Amer­i­can neigh­bours with­out any con­flict emerg­ing, so his in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with Mil­dred (Ruth Negga) causes lit­tle com­ment or con­cern — un­til she be­comes preg­nant.

Seem­ingly de­lighted at the prospect of be­com­ing a fa­ther, Richard pro­poses to Mil­dred and starts plan­ning the house he will build them on land he has al­ready pur­chased. They de­cide to drive to Wash­ing­ton, DC — where in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage is le­gal — and, in a sim­ple cer­e­mony, be­come man and wife. But their trou­bles be­gin when they re­turn home and some­one in the lo­cal com­mu­nity — we never know who — in­forms on them to Sher­iff Brooks (Mar­ton Csokas), who ar­rests and im­pris­ons Mil­dred, telling her: “It’s God’s law.” Where have we heard that one be­fore? A judge finds them guilty of com­mit­ting a crime “against the peace and dig­nity of the com­mon­wealth” and threat­ens them both with 25-year prison terms un­less (and here’s where the old-boy net­work in­ter­venes, be­cause their lawyer and the judge have some pri­vate un­der­stand­ing) they leave Vir­ginia.

This is the be­gin­ning of what was, for the Lovings, a 10-year bat­tle that, in the end, went to the Supreme Court, changed the law and be­came a key devel­op­ment in the civil rights move­ment. Even­tu­ally the Lovings’ case is taken up by the Civil Lib­er­ties Union thanks to the in­volve­ment of two at­tor­neys, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll, bet­ter known as a co­me­dian) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass).

Ni­chols tells this story with al­most ex­ces­sive re­straint, avoid­ing big scenes and any hint of melo­drama in favour of an al­most mat­ter-of­fact ap­proach. At the core of the story is the sim­ple fact the Lovings are very much in love, but the shy Richard be­comes in­creas­ingly un­com­fort­able with be­ing in the na­tional spot­light, mak­ing way for Mil­dred to be­come the cou­ple’s spokes­woman. Edger­ton and Ethiopian-born Negga are re­mark­able in these roles. It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that this very Amer­i­can story is acted by for­eign­ers (Csokas is a New Zealan­der).

The other key role, that of Life’s pho­tog­ra­pher and re­porter Grey Vil­let, is played by Ni­chols’s reg­u­lar Michael Shan­non — it’s lit­tle more than a cameo, but Shan­non in­vests the role with his usual in­tel­li­gence and en­ergy.

There have been sev­eral films over the past few years that have re­minded us about the strug­gles for racial equal­ity in Amer­ica 50 years ago; Lov­ing is, on one level, the most mod­est and re­strained of such re­minders, but the dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion of the Lovings and their sup­port­ers to see jus­tice done and to do away with laws that them­selves were crim­i­nal pro­vides pow­er­ful screen drama. Stephan El­liott’s ri­otously un­even nup­tial com­edy A Few Best Men (2011) was mem­o­rable if noth­ing else for the won­der­fully broad con­tri­bu­tion of Olivia New­ton-John, who played the mother of the bride. That film, you may re­call, was about an Aussie girl (Laura Brent) and her Less Men Lov­ing; A Few ac­ci­dent-prone wed­ding to Brit David (Xavier Sa­muel), with David’s en­tourage of mates — Tom (Kris Mar­shall), Gra­ham (Kevin Bishop) and Luke (Tim Draxl) pro­vid­ing most of the chaos. The film was scripted by Dean Craig, the Bri­tish writer who had had ear­lier suc­cess with Death at a Fu­neral.

It must have seemed like a good idea to re­visit some of these char­ac­ters in A Few Less Men, also scripted by Craig, which be­gins where the ear­lier film left off, with Luke hav­ing fallen from a great height in the Blue Moun­tains of NSW, lo­ca­tion of the wed­ding cer­e­mony.

Alas, the pres­ence of a di­rec­tor with El­liott’s par­tic­u­lar skills — he made The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — is sorely missed, and though his re­place­ment, Mark Lam­prell, tries hard enough, the film soon de­vel­ops into a se­ries of lame and in­creas­ingly strained scenes in­volv­ing ev­ery­thing that lazy prac­ti­tion­ers of screen com­edy rely on these days: fart­ing, poo­ing, un­wanted erec­tions and hu­mil­i­a­tion of var­i­ous sorts.

Af­ter Luke’s un­for­tu­nate demise, his brother back in Lon­don de­mands the repa­tri­a­tion of his corpse, so the three take the cof­fin on a char­ter flight (pi­loted by Jeremy Sims) that, thanks to Gra­ham’s dopi­ness, crashes some­where in Western Aus­tralia. Stranded in the mid­dle of nowhere with their friend’s cof­fin, the gorm­less trio seeks help from a va­ri­ety of sources, among them lat­ter-day hip­pies en­joy­ing an out­back fes­ti­val, a sex­u­ally vo­ra­cious old woman (Lynette Cur­ran), and a cross-dress­ing, ma­chetewield­ing psy­chopath (Shane Ja­cob­son).

Though lav­ishly pro­duced, the film is a pale shadow of its pre­de­ces­sor. There’s not the slight­est ba­sis in re­al­ity, which is al­ways a prob­lem for this sort of com­edy be­cause with­out a level of re­al­ity it’s all just tire­somely silly. By the con­clu­sion it’s ob­vi­ous a very slim premise has been stretched be­yond en­durance.

This is a shame be­cause the cast mem­bers are all pretty good and labour hard to make things work. Sa­muel is a ver­sa­tile and tal­ented ac­tor who has been un­lucky in many of the roles he has se­lected to play. Mar­shall is a born comic who was hi­lar­i­ous in El­liott’s Easy Virtue and equally funny in A Few Best Men. Mi­nor roles filled by ma­jor tal­ents — Sacha Hor­ler as a na­tional park ranger, Deb­o­rah Mail­man as a cop — go for lit­tle. This is def­i­nitely a case where “less” is an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion.

AT THE CORE OF THE STORY IS THE SIM­PLE FACT THE LOVINGS ARE VERY MUCH IN LOVE

Joel Edger­ton and Ruth Negga as per­se­cuted Amer­i­can cou­ple Richard and Mil­dred in be­low, Xavier Sa­muel, Kevin Bishop and Kris Mar­shall in

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