Loving: This is This, by Scott Nye
Not every great story makes for great cinema, but the story of Richard and Mildred Loving probably could have. The couple, whose relationship lead to a Supreme Court ruling granting marriage rights to interracial couples, were reportedly quite private, shy people, a far cry from the legal warriors an outline of their lives might suggest. They simply got married one day in 1958 and bravely faced each hurdle put before them. But rather than tap into the irony of private people thrust into public life, or use their terse conversations to suggest an untapped well of emotion, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) contends himself to portray Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) quite straightforwardly. While admirable in a historical context, it makes for terribly juvenile drama. Each scene plainly states its purpose. Each character is precisely who they present themselves to be. No room is allowed for complication, subtext, or mystery. “This is this, and nothing else,” the film seems to say. I don’t think this is what is often meant when people speak of the era as “a simpler time.” This is just “simple.”
Nichols begins his movie smartly – Mildred, in close-up and shaking with fear, announces she’s pregnant. Richard considers her statement, then, smiling, exclaims “that’s great!” She’s relieved, but still afraid. A black woman, perhaps she knows better than he how complicated things will become. He has the reckless abandon to ask her to marry him; who doesn’t marry the person they love? They live quietly in a mostly-black community, and it becomes easy to fool yourself into thinking the people that surround you represent everyone else in the world. You’re aware, in a sense, that people live differently and think differently, but how different can they really be?
Still, Richard takes precautions. A friend warns him where this is heading. He mounts their marriage certificate on the wall, not exactly a common feature of the American home. But gives him something to point to when the police break down his door. And here comes the deep-voiced racist, throwing around “boy” and other derogatory terms and using clipped southern phrases like “that’s no good here” to get across that his lack of education has rendered him closed-off, whereas Richard’s has rendered him open. And the process takes over – they go to jail, they get out of jail (Richard before Mildred), they’re banished from the county, they move, and life goes on, until the ACLU gets ahold of their case and it starts the engine of national import.
Part of the problem in adapting their story for the screen is the lack of momentum. It’s nearly ten years between vows and verdict, in which time there are the expected starts and stops. Their lawyer (Nick Kroll), assigned the case by the ACLU, is pointedly opportunistic and not terribly inventive in terms of strategy. Kroll portrays smarmy inhumanity well, but this is not in Nichols’ wheelhouse, and nearly every scene involving him feels completely phony. This would be more palatable had Nichols restrained his film to only scenes involving Richard and/or Mildred, but of course this is a big liberal celebration and you need some big liberal scope, which means some tepid looks into the legal proceedings. That outright awfulness of these scenes, particularly a garishly mishandled climax at the Supreme Court, certainly makes Richard and Mildred’s moments look better by comparison, until one is confronted with how little there is to really chew on there, either.
Nichols made his debut in 2007 with Shotgun Stories, and what made that film – and his subsequent work, when it was – so electric is a sense of the unexpected. He has a sense for how people can suddenly explode or suddenly withdraw or say just downright strange things at just the wrong time. This boldness coaxes his work along even when the narrative might seem lax. Shotgun Stories builds to an anticlimax, Take Shelter almost defies the notion of dramatic incident, and Midnight Special agonizingly withholds vital exposition. It’s the vitality of his characters that keeps us so engaged. These films suggest Nichols would be well-suited to such an awkwardly-paced story as Loving, but something in the material prevents this. Perhaps he felt too great a debt to history; this is the first film he’s made that’s based on a true story, or on anything for that matter.
Whatever the case, the characters are not dynamic people. They are defined by their circumstance and their determination to remain together. That’s it. It’s established immediately, and they never doubt their own resolve nor one another. They amusingly disagree on how to go about it, but never get confrontational over it. Negga plays Mildred’s passivity extraordinarily well, lending a sort of guarded sweetness to Mildred’s public face. She follows the lesson that one should be friendly at all times, a friendliness that feels tempered by knowledge that it won’t always win the day. Edgerton’s sort of stern reading of Richard is a curious portrait, his eyes constantly glancing for something else even in his most contented spaces. He situates his lower lip to the fore, almost as reassurance and comfort. Whatever electric qualities the characters might have comes from their performers, but these are ultimately adornments that find few outlets in the dramatic text. Nichols’ commitment to restraint betrays its limitations.