Thursday 22 March 2018

Film review - Loving: Forbidden love in the old South

Jeff Nichols' tale of a thwarted interracial union is worthy but dull, writes our film critic

Course of love never did run smooth: Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
Course of love never did run smooth: Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving

Paul Whitington

Most of the pre-publicity for this film around these parts has involved Ruth Negga's Best Actress Oscar nomination. In Loving, she plays a young black woman whose relationship with a white man in 1950s Virginia causes all sorts of unpleasantness. It's a fine performance, but Negga may have been fortunate to have pipped the likes of Amy Adams to the shortlist.

Loving, in any case, is based on an extraordinary true story that confronted an odious Jim Crow law and set an overdue precedent.

Negga is Mildred Jeter, a young black woman from Caroline County, Virginia, who takes a shine to a local construction worker called Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton). They fall in love, and when she becomes pregnant the next logical step is marriage. Not in the old South, however, where the anti-miscegenation laws still hold sway. A relic of the slavery era, this obnoxious legislation forbids marriage between people of different races, and most specifically, black and white. The implication of this, of course, is the repulsive old notion that white blood is superior to black, and should on no account be mixed.

In a quandary, Richard and Mildred have no choice but to head north to the more enlightened climes of Washington DC, where they marry. When they return to Caroline County, they keep their union a secret, and Richard starts building them a house in the countryside where they'll be left alone, or so they hope.

Not for long, as it turns out, because soon after, the local sheriff raids their home and arrests them for breaking the anti-miscegenation laws.

When Richard shows the judge their marriage licence, he's told it has no validity in Virginia, and the Lovings are sentenced to a year in jail. But the judge suspends it if they agree to leave the state forthwith. They move to Washington, and try to start a new life there: Richard gets a job on a construction site, and they do their best to settle down. But both their extended families are down in Caroline, and Mildred, in particular, finds the separation from her sister and mother difficult. Then, in 1964, after Mildred writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a representative of the administration puts them in touch with a lawyer who wants to make their dilemma a test case. The resulting legal battle will expose the Lovings to the full glare of the national media spotlight, and challenge the entire notion of segregation on the basis of race.

Worthiness, then, is not in short supply in Loving, and the solid performances of Negga and Joel Edgerton put a human face on some very ugly legislation. Her Mildred is passive, stoical: time and again she stares soulfully into the middle distance, inured to suffering and pretty damn good at it. Edgerton's role demands more of him, because he is asked to embody a simple, dignified but not especially articulate, southern man who struggles to deal with the injustices heaped upon him. You believe him, at every turn.

The Lovings, however, are surrounded on all sides by ciphers, characters in two dimensions who exist only to advance the storyline, like the sneering local sheriff, for instance, played with tinny fury by rent-a-villain Marton Csokas. No one else seems real but them, a dramatic failing that lessens their story's impact, though Michael Shannon does manage to create depths for the thinly sketched character of a LIFE magazine photographer who comes to Caroline County to photograph the embattled couple. In trailers for Loving we're shown tantalizing glimpses of strutting lawyers and gavel-hammering judges which promise heady courtroom exchanges. These, however, do not materialize: the couple rarely enter a court, and all the interesting legal stuff happens off-screen. Instead we watch the Lovings enduring, plodding along patiently, while enlightenment gradually catches up with them. Which is very worthy, no doubt, and faithful to the facts, but not necessarily the best way to tell their story.


(12A, 124mins)

3 Stars

Films coming soon...

The LEGO Batman Movie (Will Arnett, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson); 20th Century Women (Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig); Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin); Prevenge (Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan).

Irish Independent

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