Race laws put love to the test
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