Cannes review: Loving. Ruth Negga shines as one half of a couple who changed the US

Jeff Nichols’s film about a couple who were arrested and expelled from Virginia for falling foul of anti-miscegenation laws refuses to take the obvious path

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton

Film Title: Loving

Director: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 123 min

Mon, May 16, 2016, 18:49

   

How fitting it was that the couple whose case helped change American anti-miscegenation laws were named Mrs and Mrs Loving. As recently as 1967, the supreme court told Mildred and Richard Loving, who had been arrested and expelled from Virginia 10 years earlier, that the relevant edict defied the US constitution.

Jeff Nichols, the gifted director of Mud and Take Shelter, could have turned the story into a hackneyed courtroom drama. He has done something much quieter and more interesting. Loving focuses on the couple and allows the legal convulsions to sink into the near background.

Shot in hazy shades by Adam Stone and with a swelling score by David Wingo, the film is a love story about ordinary people in circumstances that, at that time, were not so extraordinary as they should have been.

Few films at this year’s festival have been greeted with such warmth. What lingers most is the vista of Ruth Negga’s strong, furrowed, defiant face. The Irish actor now has the world at her feet.

Nichols’s script begins with Mildred telling Richard (Joel Edgerton), whom she has been dating for some time, that she is pregnant. Delighted, he announces that, unable to marry in Virginia, they will get hitched in Washington, DC, and then quietly settle down back in their hometown.

The implication is that, if they keep their heads down, they will be left happily alone. But somebody has been talking. The cops burst in and, after being found guilty, they are forced to return to the capital. Much later, the American Civil Liberties Union comes calling.

Nichols gives us no snarling rednecks. The threats that come their way are oblique. But the sense of menace that gathers around the couple remains palpable. Whereas Richard is reluctant to cause more waves, Mildred’s steadfast courage eventually persuades him to allow the fight to continue.

It matters that the director is from Arkansas. Nichols has a connection with the south that allows the community to emerge as one trapped in the jaws of an unhappy history. How can they escape? The clue is in the title.

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