Historical dramas are tricky. The director has to balance telling a story with a satisfying dramatic arc with staying at least reasonably faithful to the facts of what happened. Since life rarely conforms to neat three-act structures, this is always a difficult feat to achieve.
Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia. Interracial marriage was banned in the state, and so, after several encounters with law enforcement, Richard and Mildred are forced to leave their home state and live in Washington D.C., which recognised their marriage.
Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy,who referred their case to the ACLU. Ultimately, it resulted in the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which the Lovings won, legalising interracial marriage throughout the United States.
This is a summary of the events depicted in the movie, and if it sounds rather dry, let me make it clear that this is merely the framework of the film. The real meat of the story is in the interactions between Mildred, Richard, and their families and friends–as well as the occasional lawyer, police officer, or journalist.
Much of the film depicts everyday events in their lives. Richard and Mildred went to work, shopped, cooked, cleaned house and raised their children like any other couple. It is that basic normality which underscores the injustice driving the film’s narrative: that such a healthy family should be forbidden brings home the sheer immorality of the law.
Because the film is almost completely focused on Richard and Mildred, rather than the court battle surrounding them, it is critical that the actors portraying them be able to carry the film. They are more than up to the challenge. Ruth Negga portrays Mildred as a kind, sensitive woman who ultimately realizes that she is fighting for more than just herself, but also for many other couples. She is intelligent and strong, often without ever saying a word. Joel Edgerton, meanwhile, portrays Richard as a man who may lack education or sophistication, but who is driven by a profound decency and love for his family.
Both Negga and Edgerton do terrific work. I worry that their roles may not be flashy enough to earn them the credit they deserve, but both are absolutely marvelous at conveying so much emotion in such subtle ways.
Despite the brilliance of its stars, Loving doesn’t completely succeed at balancing historical realism vs. the necessities of drama. Sometimes scenes go on a bit too long, or don’t resolve themselves in anything dramatically significant. It’s no coincidence that the poorest scenes in the film are the ones in the latter half which involve the Lovings’ lawyers, and from which the Lovings themselves are absent.
There are nit-picks I could make here and there about the historical accuracy of certain lines of dialogue, and a few of the reporters didn’t look authentically 1960s to me. But these are minor gripes, and it seems a disservice to a wonderful film to dwell on such things.
Loving is a quiet film about decent, moral people who love one another, and therefore it won’t get much love from the folks who go to movies to see glitzy CGI special effects and anti-heroes betraying each other. In the present political climate, however, I think we could do with a few more Lovings, and a lot less of the other sort.