Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple and unwitting heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement in this sensible, compassionate but nigglingly uncomplicated drama from American writer-director Jeff Nichols ('Mud', 'Midnight Special').
'I'm pregnant,' are the film's first words, spoken by Mildred to Richard, before they're married. His response? Silence, then a beat or two, 'That's good,' and a smile. It's the sort of small dramatic moment that this calm, quiet film is built on, and it allows for very tender, restrained performances from Edgerton and Negga. Their characters react to this pregnancy by travelling from their native Virginia, where interracial marriage was still outlawed in 1958, and getting hitched in Washington DC.
From there, they experience arrest, trial, forced exile across the state line, kids and, finally, a return to Virginia and their case being taken to the Supreme Court. But all the time, they'd much rather be doing what most of us would: raising a family, building a household, working, enjoying each other's company – all the stuff of a loving marriage.
This is a drama of reluctant protagonists, and Nichols refuses to turn the Lovings into something they weren't. It's both the film's chief strength and its main limitation. While so cautiously avoiding melodrama and other histrionics, Nichols also sidesteps some crucial questions. What did these years of oppression and uncertainty do to the Lovings' relationship? What was the effect on their family, their friends, their kids? We get only hints of answers.
Inevitably, Nichols can't avoid the public face of this injustice entirely, and later scenes with lawyers and the media feel especially perfunctory (Michael Shannon has a cameo as a Life photographer). The film is at its best when we're alone with Mildred and Richard, their lack of words often speaking volumes: Edgerton's performance is an almost silent portrayal of someone who hopes to magic half the world away by ignoring it. This is a thoughtful film, but one that's slightly limited by its own careful restraint.