Monday 30 January 2017

American honeys: "Loving"

As the Obama era gives way to What Comes Next, there emerge a number of films conceived and produced at a more enlightened moment, which will speak in time either to roads not taken, or fights that will need taking up. The 2016-17 awards season has fair spilled over with such works, whether or not the predominantly white, aged voting bodies bestow their favour upon them: ahead of next month's Moonlight and Fences, we have Jeff Nichols' interracial romance Loving, whose title serves as both gerund and introduction. The protagonists here are Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), a real-life couple drawn together in segregated Virginia at the end of the 1950s who found themselves obligated to serve jail time, jump through legal hoops, and eventually plead to the U.S. Supreme Court to build the life they wanted for themselves, and permit the life many contemporary viewers might still want for themselves.

That makes Loving sound like another of Hollywood's Big Stories. In its ramifications, this one is big, certainly - big enough to make you emerge wondering why you hadn't heard it before - but Nichols' masterstroke is to start small and simple, and only gradually build in complication. The first scene has Mildred telling Richard that she's pregnant with the (as yet unmarried) couple's first child. "Good," Richard nods, before vowing to build the three of them a house. This opening stretch takes time to evoke the pleasures of smalltown life: the eating, the dancing, the drag racing with which professional tinkerer Richard is involved. It's only after the couple have married (in the neighbouring state of Washington, where miscegenation laws didn't apply) and the local sheriff's department kick in the Lovings' door in the middle of the night that we realise the title has a third, more archaic meaning: the name of a crime one might be accused of, and for which one might be sent into exile.

Nichols first emerged as a protege of David Gordon Green, himself a protege of Terrence Malick: a rich lineage of nature boys who've realised it's often enough to set your actors down in an American field at magic hour and thereby allow your film - and your audience - the chance to breathe. It's in one such field that Richard first proposes to Mildred, and it may well be 21st century cinema's most gorgeous pledging of troth, evocative of an entire post-War moment when at least some small part of America was reordering and reconstructing itself along radically different lines; Nichols holds the moment and allows us to feel the promise in the air, and it's as thrilling to behold in 2017 as it must have been for these two back in 1957. The corollary is that those who seek to divide this couple must therefore be operating against nature in some way: the second act runs close to the conspiratorial mode of Nichols' previous Take Shelter and Midnight Special, with their close-knit family units undertaking nocturnal flights away from oppressive forces.

Having established the Lovings as a couple of underdogs right-thinking viewers might easily cheer for, Nichols makes us actively ache and care for them by letting his audience in on their whispered intimacies, getting us to share both their hopes for a better future, and their fears that it might be denied to them. It is a sign of this filmmaker's great skill as a dramatist that he can do this without recourse to tubthumping speeches: indeed, Edgerton must have barely twenty lines in the entire script, instead playing Richard as a taciturn, sometimes difficult yet practical man whose few words are his bonds, and barely deserve to be wasted on those who would separate him from his love. And who wouldn't fall for Negga, with what seems an entire history of sadness and suffering inscribed into that remarkably expressive face of hers? This Richard and Mildred deserve to be together because he gets her to lift her eyes off the ground - to look up and ahead, both literally and figuratively - but the entire film works by gesture and implication: Nichols gives us the domestic peace and quiet, the room to roam or raise a family, so that we miss it when it comes to be disrupted or taken away.

This approach swerves effortlessly past the manipulation and special pleading lesser filmmakers might have given into. Nichols rightly senses that clearing out the clatter and clutter that have traditionally made liberal-minded Oscar bait such a plod and a slog to sit through might allow the characters in a script to come to life as people, rather than symbols in a schema. Yet it also allows the Lovings' very specific battles to stand for, or at least foresee, bigger struggles up on the road ahead: those for black rights, say, or women's rights, or gay rights, or anything else a concerned citizen might fight for in a democracy truly worthy of the name. Rather than a soggy sop, the film that emerges stands as a remarkably affecting statement of belief in the American system's ability to do the right thing when pressed: written into Loving's every frame is the idea that the freedom to love whosoever you want to love, and live however you want to live, is - for any truly decent and civilised society - a prerequisite, a baseline, simply how it ought to be. And how it should still and always be, no matter where the arc of history happens to carry us.

Loving opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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