“Loving” by Jeff Nichols: Gorgeous, Wistful Drama on Slavery Leftovers is the Most Mainstream Palme Contender Yet

It’s hard not to like Jeff Nichols’ latest drama “Loving”, a biopic of real-life couple Richard and Mildred Loving, who in the late 1950’s were expelled from the state of Virginia for contracting an interracial marriage in Washington DC. Its politically correct (and topical) subject matter, beautiful cinematography and charismatic lead characters make this the most mainstream, mass appeal film yet to screen in competition (and probably also in the festival generally). We are in the thick of Oscar territory here, which is a pleasant change from the cannibalism and ghost offerings of some of the French contenders.

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“Loving” is a humble, mellow drama (no “Twelve Years a Slave” or “Mississippi Burning” crescendos here) examining the lingering effects of segregationist laws in the American South through the 1950s and 1960s. It stars Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving and Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving, a mixed couple who marry after she gets pregnant, only to be arrested for trespassing a segregationist law which prohibits interracial marriages (among a series of other daily life aspects it regulates, such as the legitimacy of mixed race offspring). This is the 1960s so we the audience are meant to be shocked and outraged, yet the characters seem relatively resigned to the status quo, until one day a car hits one of the Loving kids while playing in the street in DC, so Mildred decides to bring the family back to their rural roots and brave the ruling that originally banned her family from Virginia for 25 years.

Nichols keeps a tight focus on daily life here, with no major flares of courtroom drama or civil rights marches. It’s a conscious decision intended to highlight the pervasive, all-encompassing effects of segregationist laws on the daily life of an insignificant couple (she is a mild-mannered housewife, he is a semi-articulate builder, a simple honest guy with a grunting, glowering manner that strongly reminded me of Ennis from “Brokeback Mountain”) and the ability of historical change to be brought about by a relatively minor personal event. The focus on the personal is maintained for example by Richard’s refusal to attend a hearing, or keeping the action away from the judicial proceedings once they get to the Supreme Court.

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The choice of the leads is somewhat unusual – Edgerton, an Australian and Negga, an Irish-Ethiopian were cast as the all-American Lovings. Though the two central performances are not exceptional, they endow the film with an endearing charisma and a totally credible on-screen chemistry. It is indeed hard to not sympathise with this humble couple whose kindly, unwavering dedication to each other seems impermeable to the outside world’s brutal, vainglorious attempt to regulate love. The rural Virginia landscapes are luxuriantly filmed, yet there is also a fair amount of wistfulness, and occasionally menace, that is masterfully conveyed. All in all, “Loving” is, ironically, probably the most feel-good film screened at Cannes this year.

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