For a movie about huge and echoing results across history, this is a very quiet film. Loving v. Virginia changed this country and became bedrock law that set marriage as a fundamental, constitutional right; a right that could not be subverted by bias or prejudice. Among other things, it also led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
You’d expect with those kinds of stakes and that kind of impact that this would be a tense movie of struggle and strife with soaring music and wailing babies. In fact, this movie overlaps heavily with Hidden Figures, Selma, and 13th. It also is referenced and part of later stories, such as When We Rise. Each of these, for all the character work in them at times, focuses on the politics and edits the story for energy.
Right or wrong, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) chose to avoid that route. Certainly there is struggle throughout, but it is all very quiet and contained. The broad impact of this, essentially, quiet couple is almost jarring in balance. Instead of focusing on the civil rights fights going on all around them, the film concentrates on the devoted relationship of these two people and their family.
In some ways I understand the choice. Ruth Negga (Warcraft) and Joel Edgerton (Black Mass) turn in sweet performances that are full of subtle moments of reality. Their story is completely removed from the storm they created. The struggle is very personal and theirs alone. That is a point of view that is often lost in the tumult of how large sea changes are depicted. Then again, many of those changes were all-consuming for those involved. For the Lovings it was important, obviously, but the fight was tangential to their day-to-day lives.
Even characters such as Marton Csokas (The Equalizer) bigoted sheriff are very measured in their engagements with the Lovings. In fact Nick Kroll’s (Adult Beginners) lawyer is often baffled by the Loving’s lack of engagement in what he sees, clearly, as a life changing event for both him and the country.
But what does that do to it as a movie? Well, honestly, it makes it a bit slow. Even if the people are compelling and the perspective true and somewhat unique for these kinds of tales, that doesn’t make it a great film. Which, I admit, is frustrating. If this hadn’t been about the Lovings, but instead was about someone who was helped by the seminal ruling, it would have worked better for me. But as it is about the central characters in the event, I wanted more … something. More emotion, more risk, more stakes. Nichols took a very naturalistic approach… that takes guts, but it doesn’t necessarily take my emotions with them.
Perhaps I’m just too trained by the media to expect more. Perhaps I’m just an adrenaline junky who wants a better ride out of my films. But I honestly think it was a tactical error in the script to focus where it did given the tenor of the film it was going to be. The performances, as I mentioned, are very good and the story is important and interesting. But this is a great example of why adherence to the truth in an event isn’t always the best way to tell the tale.