2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Eleven – LOVING
I originally had other plans for day eleven of the Milwaukee Film Festival, but I dropped them in a hurry when I received an email for a special screening of Jeff Nichols’ much anticipated LOVING. It was the cherry on top of a pretty terrific day.
Before I get to that, I need to do some celebrity name dropping and mention that I had a nice conversation with Mark Borchardt at the Milwaukee Film Festival’s awards brunch. What AMERICAN MOVIE probably didn’t get across is just how knowledgeable on film history he is. He kept me on my toes and is just a fun conversationalist. Mark recommended checking out WINTER KEPT US WARM and THE AMERICAN DREAMER and I intend to do just that.
So, how do you follow that up? An early screening of a reputed Oscar contender is a good way to do so. Frankly, LOVING may be too much a movie for Oscar, opting for understated where many lesser movies opt for shouting their moral message from the mountain top. Doubtless, many people already know the outcome of Richard and Mildred Loving’s case against the State of Virginia to overturn Virginia’s law against mixed race marriages. Jeff Nichols’ assumes that his audience is intelligent and opts to focus on what you don’t know, the people at the heart of the case.
Instead of histrionics, Jeff Nichols concentrates on the relationship between Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), the hardship they endured including separation from their family and friends, and the love that helped them endure. Both are good, and they have real chemistry, but ultimately it’s Ruth Negga that emerges with one of the best performances of the year. Neither say all that much, but you can watch the emotions play across there face, which Nichols loves to emphasize. And, as Richard begins to flag under the strain, Mildred takes more of the burden and it’s a sign of how Nichols has story and theme work together.
Neither Richard or Mildred are people of many words in Nichols screenplay and he’s confident enough in his command of visuals to just let them do the work. Perhaps most striking, other than the closeups on the emotions playing across the actors faces, is how much Nichols emphasizes simple human contact between the two. They hug, they kiss, they hold hands, Mildred will give Richard a shoulder massage after a tough day, and it’s in line with the famous photograph of the couple with Richard laughing with his head in Mildred’s lap as they watch television together. (Nichols shows excellent taste in just what episode of classic television he uses too.) These simple images, repeated often, tell us just how much this couple loves one another and you feel the ache when they’re separated, either physically or when they simply feel too burdened. If you wanted a textbook example of how “show don’t tell” is supposed to work, LOVING is a great example.
It’s really a triumph for the whole production team. It’s a warm, humane film celebrating two people that loved each other and in their quiet determination and perhaps a little stubbornness helped change the world. The title ends up being both noun and verb. It may not have the fireworks of some of Nichols’ other films, but it makes up for it by achieving nearly everything it aims for. It’s one of the best films of the year.