This film tackles the true story of the Loving's and how they fought Virginia law back in the late 1950's. Interracial marriage was illegal at the time, so the two ran off to Washington D.C. to be wed, only to return to the open cuffs of the local government. They were then forced to leave the state and spent the next decade fighting the antiquated law, eventually landing their case in the lap of the Supreme Court. From there, you can probably guess how this story ends.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga provide eloquent, near poetic renditions of Richard and Mildred and are by far the brightest gems to be found here, specifically Edgerton and his quietly furious portrayal of a simple country boy with his back against the wall. But these actors simply made the best of what they were given, and after seeing the film, it doesn't seem like they were given much.
The ultimate problem with "Loving" is that it's just not meaty enough. Underwritten and simply too short, there's little context provided for much of what happens on screen. We pick up in the middle of the Loving's story, so we never get to see the pair meet, fall in love, and so on. This is a fine approach to take, provided the subjects are characterized as much as they would've been otherwise. But Nichols skips over much of the connective tissue that would allow us to understand why these two love each other as they do.
A big contributor to this is the fact that the Loving's don't share that much dialogue of consequence. There's plenty of small talk, but their quiet, intimate moments together are exactly that: quiet. They cuddle and they hug and they laugh, but they don't ever talk things out or openly discuss the problems they're facing, whether it's the monumental issue of the law or the smaller stresses at home, like raising three children.
One could argue that the Loving's were just simple country folk so they wouldn't get into lengthy, meaningful discussions about such things, but even if that were the case in real life, this is a movie, and movie's need fleshed-out characters. As it stands in the final cut of the film, Richard and Mildred are much too stoic for us to really connect with their struggle. We're shown how, but we never get a chance to understand why.
Another problem "Loving" faces is the fact that it doesn't feature a single supporting character worth remembering, and that's not because the cast wasn't up to snuff, either. Martin Csokas as the hard and mean sheriff and Michael Shannon as the quirky photographer from Life Magazine are but two examples of the tools this film had at its disposal, but neither are given any substantial attention. Characters come and go without ever making a real impact and the ones that do stick around end up being the least interesting and most poorly portrayed.
In saying that, I'm most pointedly referring to the lawyers that end up representing the Loving's, played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass. Yes, you read that right; I said Nick Kroll plays a lawyer. That's the same Nick Kroll that plays "The Douche," a radio personality in "Parks and Recreation" who's known for his unbearable toilet humor. Now, I have nothing against Kroll or the raunchy, lowbrow comedy that made him famous. In fact, I think he's prone to being quite funny on occasion. But I do object to his casting as a dramatic character, let alone a lawyer, when he clearly isn't built for that sort of role. Kroll plays upstart lawyer Bernie Cohen with a rigid, thorough awkwardness, the sort that makes it hard to believe he was anything but a last minute resort.
But I don't want to get hung up on bashing any one actor, nor do I mean to imply "Loving" is without worth, because that simply isn't true. As I mentioned above, Edgerton and Negga give excellent performances that wouldn't be out of place at the Academy Awards. And though his script is lacking, Nichols makes the most of the pieces he does assemble. As seen most richly in "Mud" (2012), Nichols certainly knows how to capture a location visually, and the Virginian landscapes, forestry and all, are very well represented here. Of course, there's also the fact that this is a story for the ages and one that needs telling, so even if it isn't told as thoroughly as it should be, it's still quite engrossing.
"Loving" is probably going to get a considerable amount of attention at the Oscars, and aside from its lead actors, most of it will be unwarranted. But this is still a good film, one worth watching, as the story of Richard and Mildred Loving is well worth telling. But Jeff Nichols is capable of much more as he's proved before, even earlier this year with his excellent genre piece "Midnight Special." I look forward to his next project with the hope that he takes on something a little more his speed.