Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), the interracial couple whose criminalization led to the overturning of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. The film does its best to avoid the trappings of a courtroom drama, and it mostly succeeds (it helps that the Lovings opted not to attend the Supreme Court hearing that ended up ruling in their favor—though even that isn’t enough to spare us a montage sequence in which highlights from the court proceedings are intercut with shots of the couple going about their business at home). Nichols is an Indiewood director whose films toe the line between convention and originality, and Loving toes that line to maddening effect; the film’s flickers of greatness often get smothered by too much good taste.
It’s an exceptionally restrained film, something that works both to its advantage and its detriment. Nichols and his actors downplay the emotions of the Lovings’ story as if in an attempt to avoid the clichés of melodrama, but in doing so they risk making the Lovings dull: stoic and noble objects of suffering. Nichols seals the Lovings off behind a wall of privacy that always keeps us at a distance from them. We rarely see them interacting with each other alone. A long-distance shot of them quietly entering their bedroom and shutting the door is representative of the way in which the film denies us access to the more intimate details of their marriage—out of respect, presumably, but at the expense of our involvement in their story. Less is more, it seems, until it’s not enough.