It took a few days for the dreaded O-word to surface at Cannes – no, not ovation (there have been plenty of those), and not orgasm (many films have had some sort of lengthy, intense sex scene). On Monday morning, with the premiere of Jeff Nichols’s Loving, a historical drama about the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage, the Oscar prognosticating began in earnest. It’s understandable: Loving will open theatrically in November, in the thick of awards season. And premiering it at Cannes instead of one of the fall festivals was probably a good idea, as it’s a film that downplays the historical significance of its subject in favor of a quiet humanity. Movies like that can get noticed here more easily than during the year-end Oscar madness.
That muted gentleness is Loving‘s great strength. With films like Take Shelter, Mud, and even this spring’s somewhat uneven Midnight Special, Nichols has steadily built a filmography of terse beauty. Here he stays focused — almost to a fault — on the modest, very-much-in-love couple at the center of the case. In the opening scenes, set in the late 1950s in Virginia, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) can’t seem to keep themselves off each other, whether they’re holding hands, embracing at a drag race, or even just touching their knees together. Without idealizing anything, these early scenes depict a poor, rural community that’s surprisingly diverse: Black and white folks race cars, work in fields, eat at a table together. Not much is made of the fact that these two — a white man and a black woman — are in love. When they decide to get married, Richard and Mildred must cross state lines and drive to Washington, D.C. To them, it’s the way things are, and they don’t question it. They’re just people getting on with their lives.
Even as the Lovings face difficulties with the law, and slowly become aware of the injustice of their situation, the film never really compromises its patience and intimacy. You might expect a story like this to have lots of scenes of righteous speeches and fire-breathing racists. But all we really get is Marton Csokas in a relatively small part as the dirtbag police chief who arrests the Lovings, going on about “God’s law.” Even this one-dimensional character is somewhat interesting: He sneers at Richard with a mixture of condescension and pity, because he thinks the guy is too uneducated to understand the differences between blacks and whites. These classist aspects of racism are something we rarely see in films about this period.
The couple gets exiled to D.C., unable to return together to Virginia. What drives their dream of going home isn’t indignation or morality, but Mildred’s simple longing for the country: She looks at a small, ugly patch of grass outside their D.C. home like it’s an insult, thinking back to the acre in Virginia where Richard had promised to build her a house. By staying within the narrow world of these two people, Nichols avoids turning his film into a familiar screed or a by-the-numbers legal drama. He also steers clear of that trap so many others fall into — of losing focus on the people and letting the lawyers and their arguments become the heroes.
It could even be said that he goes a little too far. There are parts of Loving where the drama dissipates, thanks to the tension between the demands of history and what Nichols has in mind, and there are points when I wished for a little more context behind the legal issues. But what Nichols does instead pays greater dividends. While Loving is intimate, it’s not indulgent; it seems to have absorbed Richard Loving’s eyes-on-the-road humility and his wife’s down-home pragmatism. The Lovings aren’t even at the Court or with their lawyers when the arguments are heard and decisions are made. (One late, brief shot of the outside of the Supreme Court contrasts so strikingly with what we’ve seen up until that point that I gasped audibly.) We get no broad cathartic moments — no great breakdowns, or speeches, or confrontations. By the end, though, don’t be surprised if your face is awash in tears.