Jeff Nichols’ success as a filmmaker to date has always found its strengths in the ethereal- his strongest two films of his career so far, Take Shelter and Midnight Special, focus on stories where the supernatural is a key factor, and his other recently commercially successful film, Mud, found a protagonist in a drifter with a strongly spiritual point of view. Nichols is a master of these themes, finding actors whose embodiment of life force is far more prominent than their willingness to talk (Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, and Adam Driver all come to mind.)
In his most recent film, Loving, Nichols tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a real life interracial married couple living in Virginia in the late 50s and 60s. In the state of Virginia their marriage is declared illegal, so they move to Washington to avoid jail time, where, years later, their case is picked up by a couple of human rights lawyers and overturned in a historic decision. The film is anchored by exceptional performances by frequent collaborator Joel Edgerton, and particularly Ruth Negga, whose expressive physicality and inner life give the film its most memorable human moments.
Nichols’ strength is, as usual, finding the ethereal qualities in the story, and so ably starts the story off very well, showing us the love of the couple and their happy and peaceful coexistence in rural Virginia. Nichols’ easy connection with nature and the environment has an excellent chemistry with the characters, who wish for nothing more than an easy life with each other and one day their children. As the law starts to get involved, however, Nichols is forced to focus on plot to get across important historic details, and the verbosity and detail centric style of filmmaking required for a biopic such as this does not suit his intense, often wordless style. The always wonderful Michael Shannon makes a welcome appearance as a photographer for Life magazine tasked with taking photos of the couple prior to their supreme court case, and comedian Nick Kroll makes a slightly less than authentic, but easily likeable, turn as Bernie Cohen, their lawyer.
Beautiful, wistful photography is provided by cinematographer Adam Stone, and whilst this also is particularly effective in the film’s first act, once the story takes a darker turn, the beauty of the photography almost works against the film for the rest of its duration, with the exception being in the films substantially quieter moments.
I also must ask the question, is this story the necessary one to be telling about race? It seems as though it is almost an invitation to look at and celebrate how far we have come as a world in our acceptance of people of colour, when there is obviously still a lot of work to be done. There are plenty of stories of racial injustices in our world today that are equally horrific and vital (Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s 2013 effort, does just this), nor does this film have the euphoric celebration of victories for people of colour present in Theodore Melfi’s recent Hidden Figures.
There are brief examples of Nichols virtuosity as a filmmaker in the latter stages of the film; he shows the passing of time with the seasons effortlessly, effectively, beautifully, but ultimately his film suffers from too much storytelling for his own style. There are too many unnecessary words handled with insufficient care, too many montages, and too many obvious signs that this is perhaps not the kind of story Nichols himself was not comfortable telling.
The court case itself isn’t given time to breathe at all, and when the ultimate victory comes, it does so almost without a single ripple in the film or in the reaction of the viewer: Nichols distrust of his own style in telling a court room procedural meant that instead of addressing the court case and the ugliness of the attitudes of those involved, he spent the final act of the film addressing the naivety of the lead characters, and was neither subtle nor powerful enough in his treatment of this to give the viewer any real sense that anything had changed in the course of two hours (or rather, in the course of ten years of the civil rights movement.)
Nichols’ film is worth a watch for beautiful photography and a riveting performance from Ruth Negga, but ultimately feels like the wrong director directing the wrong biopic.