It’s hard to get the measure of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga’s Richard and Mildred Loving at first. Both of these characters seem too small, both waiting to be defined by someone coming in and taking life’s major. We don’t get to see them fall in love, they already are in the very first scene when she reveals her pregnancy to him. When he brings her to an empty plot of land and proposes, there’s no question as to the answer. When threatened with imprisonment for the fact of their marriage no possibility of their breaking up. Of course they’re small, you realise, under the crushing weight of America’s racism how can you not be?
Size, though, does not directly correlate to strength; as evidenced in these two being the plaintiffs in the case which served to ban the criminalisation of interracial marriage. The film seems determined to reflect this, doggedly avoiding as much of the court proceedings as possible, choosing instead to focus on the couple’s relationship over the 10 year long court proceedings between their first arrest and the supreme court’s final ruling. We don’t get to see them perform, or debate, or make any grand speeches, we see the strength it takes to keep living.
In Egerton’s interpretation of Richard, that comes through as a desperate need to provide. A home, an income, safety, security. When his wife expresses a desire to return illegally to Virginia to give birth he finds a way. He is defeated by the fact that the law prohibits him from fulfilling this duty. He still does anyway. Negga’s Mildred finds her strength through care, of her husband, children, family and eventually all the people their case comes to represent. She is the one who contacts the lawyers, who invites the world into their lives. She does this quietly and humbly but her resolve is solid.
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols obviously made a choice here to put these characters first. He eschews the aggressive plots and fancy camera work and all that style of his previous films and just gives this one time to settle. So many scenes are just simple setups in which the actors are given the space to perform. That’s all it needs, a little space, a little time and these performances reach you. All it takes is a little patience and understanding.