‘Loving’ is Well Acted but Too Subtle for its Own Good

loving_2016_filmSubtlety can be a film’s largest strength or biggest weakness, and in this case it’s both.

“Loving” tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia who fight to have the marriage laws of the United States changed. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga star as the couple alongside Nick Kroll and Marton Csokas as Jeff Nichols writes and directs.

Last year I thought the best directed film was “Spotlight” by Tom McCarthy, because of how subtle and nuanced he controlled his script and actors. But subtly doesn’t win awards and the Oscar went to Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “The Revenant,” a decision I did not disagree with. Here, Jeff Nichols also has his actors give quiet, understated performances and they all nail it, however his script is too careful for its own good.

Joel Edgerton is one of those actors who shows up in a lot of things and is often underappreciated for his work. He was brilliantly creepy in his directorial debut “The Gift” and arguably outworked Johnny Depp in “Black Mass.” Here he doesn’t have a big “Oscar moment” but instead just portrays a man who is confused why the state (or anybody) cares what he and his wife do. His chemistry with Ruth Negga, like everything else in the film, is quiet but effective, and they do come off as a couple that knows they are in a unique situation but question why it matters.

Negga is the rock of the film and arguably of the couple. She remains hopeful through the entire ordeal; through arrests and court room appearances and interviews her eyes remain soft and her tone gentle. Nick Kroll is also surprisingly not awful in his role as the couple’s lawyer. I am not a fan of Kroll’s comedy and when he showed up in the trailer here all I could do was laugh at his presence, but he brings a lighthearted sense to the film and took part in arguably each of the best scenes.

The cinematography is polished and the set designs accurate, all putting you in the look and feel of 1960s rural America.

The biggest problem with the film is Nichols’ script and what he does with it as a director. While the topic of the film itself is frustrating and controversial, Nichols keeps things relatively safe and doesn’t take any true risks. There is never a building sense of tension or worry about whether or not the Lovings will win the case, and while one can argue that is because we know the outcome of the real-life situation I would counter with we know how “Argo” ends and yet even though I’ve seen that film ten times I still worry if they’re going to get off the runway in time.

Nichols also doesn’t give us much to know about the characters outside their current situation, so they become identified solely by the fact they’re an interracial couple, which in turn contradicts the point the film is trying to make in that that doesn’t matter. Richard likes to fix and race cars but really that’s about as much characterization we receive about either main character.

“Loving” is well acted and beautifully shot film with an important message to tell, and its heart is in the right place. However while subtly is a trait that works well with its performances, it doesn’t lend itself to behind the camera and it holds everything else back. Hopefully Negga and Edgerton get recognized for their work here but the film, unlike the couple it is about, is rather forgettable.

Critics Rating: 6/10

Focus Features

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