There's been an interesting trend recently of period films that reflect on the present, re-casting true narratives with the kind of subtlety and empathy that makes the historical implications of events reverberate. Loving is the latest in that mould (along with Hidden Figures, Jasper Jones and others) to reach Australian cinemas. In shining a light on the past, it shows us a way forward.
The phrase "Loving v. Virginia" may be recognisable, even if you're unsure to what it refers. Richard Loving (played here by Joel Edgerton) was a bricklayer in Caroline County, Virginia, who in 1958 traveled over state lines to marry his loving partner Mildred. She was black, and the state of Virginia would not allow them to be married. When the authorities learned of the pair's unlawful matrimony, they were arrested, Mildred pregnant with Richard's child. From there, the duo endured exile from their lifelong home, and a Sisyphean legal battle that took them all the way to the Supreme Court before they were legally allowed to love one another.
The film begins in medias res, in a moment of extreme intimacy between the couple. It is this kind of intimacy that the film does best, the camera indulging in loving close-ups of its finely drawn characters. This is truly a film with two equal leads, striking a deft balance between the almost frustratingly reserved, supremely gentle Richard Loving, and his more open-hearted wife. Their kind and supportive families are also part of this beautifully portrayed inner circle.
Loving is ultimately about Richard and Mildred's desire to live their lives in peace in their country home, and how it conflicts with not only the law, but the encroaching presence of the media as their case receives more and more attention. In this regard, the film does Richard and Mildred a small disservice; the audience is never allowed to see the beginnings of their romance and how they built that life together. The audience never grasps the full scale of what is at stake.
Even when the film sags slightly around the end of the second act - the screenplay unwisely injecting extraneous drama into what was ultimately a very low-key and civil story - the brilliant cast save every moment. Ruth Negga's Oscar-nominated performance as Mildred is absolutely stunning, and every moment she is on screen she draws the eye. Even when she is shown in silhouette, the deepest emotions can be read into the tone of her voice and the droop of her lips. Alongside her, Joel Edgerton is equally marvellous as man-of-few-words Richard, creating an idiosyncratic and very endearing performance based around his body language.
Special mention should also be made of newcomer Terri Abney as Mildred's sister Garnet, who hopefully will have many more, bigger roles on the horizon, and a surprising turn from comedian Nick Kroll as ACLU (American Civil Rights Union) lawyer Bernie Cohen.
Even knowing from the beginning how the film will end, Loving is a gripping film. Aside from a few slight missteps, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) ensures that the most important thing - love - shines through the most. Adam Stone's gorgeous, slightly muted cinematography and David Wingo's score - balanced adroitly between pathos and sentiment - also do wonders in that regard.
"Love is love," the adage goes. Loving may be a fairly faithful retelling of one of America's turning points in the battle for civil rights, but as the film draws to its end it becomes apparent that it is also an urgent warning to not be on the wrong side of history.
Loving opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday March 16th.