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Ruth Negga, left, and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard in Jeff Nichols’s Loving.Ben Rothstein

About a third of the way into the historical drama Loving, Martin Luther King's march on Washington appears on a television screen. And, at this point, Mildred Loving's aunt suggests to her niece that the young wife and mother needs to get herself some civil rights. Well, duh.

"Call the American Civil Liberties Union now!" is only what many viewers of Jeff Nichols's new film will have been thinking from the beginning as the pregnant Mildred (Ruth Negga) and her new husband, Richard (Joel Edgerton), find themselves thrown in jail in Virginia for the crime of marriage. She is black; he's white.

And yet, our contemporary perspective never overwhelms the emotions of this delicate film. By concentrating on the amorous relationship at the centre of the landmark 1967 case that overturned state miscegenation laws, the dexterous Nichols creates the rare drama of historic injustice that does not rely on an audience's foresight to build suspense; nor its hindsight to build empathy. You assume, since you know 20th-century history even if you don't know the specific case, that the Lovings will eventually win and of course you are rooting for them, but you care more about what their battle may do to them as people.

If this deftly directed film succeeds by existing in the Lovings' own gentle moment – the aptly named couple are sometimes fearful; they are never angry – it is thanks to two fine performances from Negga and Edgerton, the Irish-Ethiopian actress and Australian actor who play the couple.

Nichols, who also wrote the script, has depicted the pair as perfect. It's a criticism you could make of the film, which never shows any hint of disagreement, bitterness or regret in this marriage as Richard and Mildred flee their tightly knit biracial community in rural Virginia for urban exile in Washington – returning home after five years only to live in secrecy on an isolated farm.

But the placidity and happiness of this union are plausible because Negga and Edgerton make these noble people three-dimensional, turning a docile, unambitious couple with neither the self-knowledge nor the words to launch a social revolution into unlikely protagonists in the civil-rights movement.

For his part, Edgerton must ensure that the stalwart Richard Loving, always decent but ever monosyllabic, remains sympathetic without benefit of the talky righteousness that might normally explain a social hero. As the embattled character becomes increasingly morose, the actor makes his taciturn forbearance heartrendingly real. Slightly edited by Nichols, Loving's famous message to the Supreme Court hearing that he declined to attend is only: "Tell the judge I love my wife."

Meanwhile, Negga must make the diffident and demure Mildred, a rural woman living in a prefeminist age, tactful rather than subservient to her doubtful husband as she takes their case to the lawyers and to the press, repeatedly sidestepping his reluctance in a quietly determined quest for justice.

Their trajectories are opposite. He has a sense of fairness but no political consciousness, and his faith in his own ability to protect his family is shaken by their plight, his spirit ground down by the ensuing battles. She, on the other hand, can glimpse what a court victory might mean and gains increasing confidence through a fight that ennobles her.

The two actors beautifully balance their performances in this regard, revealing the way the Lovings' bond remains inviolable despite their different paths. There is only one scene when any sympathetic character asks Richard to recognize his race and the privilege it confers; to acknowledge that he and Mildred are different. It is in Edgerton's blurry eyes that you see the truth of it: This encounter all but breaks him.

Nichols, making the move from his surprisingly intimate apocalyptic sci-fi projects (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) to this more sensitive emotional terrain, does not preach nor even, in many cases, explain.

Did places as cheerfully integrated as the impoverished Virginian farming community from which the Lovings sprang really exist? We simply take Nichols's word for it, surprisingly delivered right off the top in a rapid-fire opening sequence of joyous cross-racial socializing.

Why can't the Lovings just stay safely in the District of Columbia, where Virginian law can't touch them? The best answer is simply an image of Negga's back curling forward as she depicts Mildred in the grip of a homesickness beyond words.

Occasionally, Nichols does lose the courage of his convictions here: There is a sequence in which he tries to build suspense with a pair of accidents that befall the family in Washington only to rapidly reveal how minor these really are; some of the dialogue attributed to the Lovings' lawyers sounds awkwardly like a history class. But mainly the director's decision to eschew the pulpit in favour of the parishioners pays off handsomely, creating an unaffected yet touching account of this civil-rights victory.

Toward the end of the film, he shows Richard and Mildred standing on the threshold of a bedroom watching over their sleeping children. It's a cliched moment and yet, as the couple move back downstairs to their living room and gently shut that door on the viewer, Nichols's purpose becomes clear. Left staring at the plain wooden panel without any further view into their lives, you have to recognize that the Lovings have the same right as anybody else to enjoy the secrets of a happy marriage.