Writer-director Jeff Nichols' second film of 2016 (earlier this year his terrific Midnight Special was released) is Loving, a title that is a double entendre, being both the last name of the couple at its center as well as a story about loving.
I haven't seen Nichols' first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, which he said he shot for $48K and which sat in the back of his father's furniture store for a long time because he initially didn't have the money to process the film stock, but all of the ones I have seen have been strikingly unique and affective dramas: Take Shelter (in which Michael Shannon's character is well into developing paranoid schizophrenia--or maybe not), Mud (a Twainish story about young boys befriending a fugitive played by Matthew McConaughey), and the aforementioned Midnight Special (about a father and a son with special powers on the run). Nichols was approached by the producers (who include Colin Firth) of the HBO documentary The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski, about Mildred and Richard Loving (pictured below), to turn the doc into a narrative film.
Nichols, at the Director's Guild in West Hollywood for a screening, said he warned the producers that if they were looking for a commercial film with the usual tropes--for example, the big courtroom drama that this could have been--he was not their guy. In fact, this film is bigger than any courtroom drama, promised in the extreme close up that is its opening shot--simply Mildred's face wracked with an emotion that we don't, for a few moments, have any context for, hence her expression is initially inexplicable. As inexplicable and ineffable as is love, and as Shakespeare put it, the "marriage of true minds." Loving is a minimalist character drama that achieves intensity through its aching minimalism and subtlety. And because it is so affecting and personal, it is far more effective in making a larger political statement about race and marriage and equality.
"I think equality is an idea," Nichols put it, explaining that it's something never fully achieved or even achievable, but something each generation strives for again and again. He was shocked that, as a Southerner (from Little Rock, Arkansas) and an American, he had known nothing about the Lovings' story until he'd seen the documentary. (I hadn't, either.) In the 50s and 60s, with regard to marriage, it was about equality in interracial marriage; now it's about same sex marriage.
Nichols has shot all five of his films on celluloid. He explained why. "I think suspension of disbelief is a very precious thing," and something he believes all narrative films need to have--even those based on real events. He feels that celluloid helps that, because he finds that film "makes me sit up and focus." Nichols says that when he's viewed recent period films shot on digital, he just doesn't buy them. Also, "I want my films to have weight." Joking about the literal weight of film canisters, he said he truly feels that celluloid adds heft. Nichols' films not only induce "the willing suspension of disbelief," but demonstrate the filmmaker's "poetic faith," terms first used by the poet Coleridge:
"It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." --Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817
Leads Ruth Negga (who's Irish, by the way), and Joel Edgerton (Australian) give Oscar-worthy performances. The finesse of Mildred's subtly emerging character arc is particularly deft (I can't wait to for the PDF of the screenplay to see how it read without these performances). And just the way Edgerton uses his body shows us everything about Richard's internal conflicts and feelings of awkwardness. Nichols is fond of working with the same team--Edgerton was also in Midnight Special, and Michael Shannon, another alum, has a choice cameo in this film.
I loved the choice that Nichols made to use an elliptical approach to the lovers' relationship. We come upon it in medias res--no trite meeting/courtship scenes, no sex scenes (but how soulful and sexy it is, then, when at one point Mildred takes Richard's hand, leads him into the bedroom, and he closes the door!). In fact, in their first scene together, the two sit side by side but aren't initially even touching each other. Nevertheless, the connection between them is palpable. This is a testament to the actors' craft and to Nichols' writing and directing.
Loving is a beautiful piece of work by a gifted young (37) auteur whom Elle magazine deemed "already a national treasure" in their November issue. Here's the trailer:
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