‘Loving,” the new movie from Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Midnight Special”), pulls a bait-and-switch right there in its title. What sounds as expansive and epic as that most powerful of abstract nouns actually refers to Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who in 1967 took their fight against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court in a landmark civil rights case.
The film itself plays a similar trick, to the confusion of some early audiences. It’s awards season, so a movie with history and justice on its side and its eyes presumably on the Oscar prize has to be big in scope, right? Yet “Loving” is almost perversely intimate. It’s small-scale and built on close-ups — it’s concerned with the fate of this couple rather than the nation. Therein lies the movie’s strength.
But if you’ve followed Nichols’s career, this isn’t too much of a surprise, since the frayed and tender bonds of family have been his abiding subject. “Loving” opens with Mildred (Ruth Negga) telling Richard (Joel Edgerton) that she’s pregnant; they’re sitting on a back-country porch at dusk, and you can tell she’s looking for the rejection in his face. He’s white, she’s black, they’re not yet married — how easy for him to walk away. Then Richard’s face clears, he grins and mumbles “Good,” and the movie rights itself, for Mildred and for us. Their commitment to each other is never again in doubt. It’s the rest of the country that’s on trial.
Because Virginia law prohibits interracial marriage, they drive up to Washington, D.C., for a civil ceremony, then return home to live in secret. “Loving” presents Richard and Mildred’s world as one of deep rural pride and poverty, where the races mix because everyone’s far down at the bottom of the social ladder. For Richard, Mildred is just the girl next door. He’s a construction guy, the opposite of a political activist, and when the local police turn up one dawn to arrest the couple and throw them in jail, his confusion is complete but his shame doesn’t exist.
“Loving” gives us a hissable villain in the local deputy sheriff, a ramrod segregationist played by Marton Csokas, but the movie’s not very interested in bad guys. The Lovings are forced to move to Washington, and Nichols elides gracefully their years in the big city and the arrival of one, two, three children, holding steady on Mildred as she slowly wilts from the noise and the crowds. Someone suggests she write to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. A few months later there’s a nice lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (Nick Kroll) on her doorstep.
What’s fascinating about the movie — and the source of some people’s dismay — is how uninterested Nichols is in the grand gesture. Richard and Mildred Loving didn’t set out to change history, they just wanted to be married and to live in the home of their own choosing, and “Loving” honors the scale of their wishes. Visually, the film works close in, the camera hovering by the faces of its central couple, searching for clues.
Edgerton, an Australian-raised actor (“The Great Gatsby,” “Black Mass”) and director (“The Gift”) who has become one of the more intriguing shape-shifters in American movies, screws his face tighter and tighter as the movie goes on. Richard is distrustful of the government, distrustful of the media attention, distrustful of everything except his love for his wife. On some level, Nichols wants us to acknowledge he’s right. When a Life magazine photographer (played by the director’s good luck charm, Michael Shannon) comes to take their picture and sneaks a shot of the couple snuggling on the couch as they watch a sit-com, the moment is meant to feel both intrusive and necessary. (We see the real photograph under the end credits.)
Negga gives the more outwardly powerful performance, using her large, lambent eyes to show Mildred’s growing worldliness, even stubbornness, in taking on a racist system. The movie hints that, unfairly or not, the battle was hers to wage more than her husband’s and that she rose to that challenge. It’s a portrait of a woman learning to stand when she didn’t even know she was kneeling.
I like this movie a lot, but it may be too intimate, too slow for some moviegoers. The approach feels organic and wholly intentional, though, Nichols privileging the ions of affection streaming between these two people at the expense of the standard cinematic civics lecture. (The Lovings chose not to attend the Supreme Court hearing and the movie follows suit.) And toward the end, when history has had its say and “Loving” finally pulls back for a well-earned long shot, you can almost feel the couple and the nation breathing free for the first time.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 123 minutes. PG-13 (”thematic elements,” whatever that means).