“You know better.”
That phrase is leveled again and again at Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a taciturn white bricklayer, in Jeff Nichols’ film “Loving.” The sheriff (Marton Csokas), who arrests Richard and his black wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), for the crime of living as man and wife in Virginia, hisses those three words at him as a threat. His own mother (Sharon Blackwood) scolds him, “You know better,” while delivering his first child with Mildred.
Whatever Richard knew, he knew he wanted to marry the woman he loved. He wanted to make her happy, keep his family safe and live in their hometown, close to their families. In striving for a bit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Lovings changed the world. The 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, was a landmark civil rights case, declaring interracial marriage legal and marriage itself an inherent right. In Nichols’ telling of the events, it’s a simple quest, led by people who just wanted to live their lives.
The screenplay is sparse. The Lovings aren’t particularly talkative, and much is conveyed through gesture, glances and physicality. A flash of Mildred’s eyes communicates whole sentences to her husband, sister (Terri Abney) and their lawyer, Bernard Cohen (Nick Kroll). Richard, often slack-jawed and silent, is efficient with his own words, speaking only to what’s most important to him. “Tell the judge I love my wife,” he instructs Cohen.
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“Loving” is a legal tale, but it’s primarily a love story, focused on the central relationship rather than the court battle. It’s quietly empowering, about normal people who changed the course of history with a single handwritten letter. While watching the March on Washington on television, Mildred’s friend Laura (Andrene Ward-Hammond) exhorts her to “get you some civil rights,” and so Mildred writes a note to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, setting the ball rolling for their legal fight.
That humble quality, the quietude and simplicity, is sometimes the downfall of “Loving,” which doesn’t showboat or overcompensate to achieve waterworks or operatic moments. The highs and lows of the story aren’t played for emotional extremes. They’re just an interpretation of the events, attempting to get at the truth and heart of the matter — that home and hearth and family are at the core of civil rights.
Yet for all of its subtlety and restraint, “Loving” washes over you, seeps into your soul and remains there long after the film is over. That’s largely due to the performances by Edgerton and Negga. They channel the Loving couple, aping the easy and open physical affection as captured in Life magazine photographs taken by Grey Villet (Lexington native Michael Shannon) — a large arm slung around Mildred’s neck, a head on a lap watching TV. It’s their action of simply loving each other that changed the world, an act that proved that loving is often better than knowing.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements. 2:03. Kentucky.