Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: LOVING

When it was against the law a white man marries a black woman and they are banished by a court from their home in Virginia. It's 1958 and no one's been looking too hard at how creaky some of the antebellum legislation has grown. The civil rights movement is rising and the couple's case is on its way to Washington. Great courtroom drama stuff, this. Except that doesn't happen. This is a Jeff Nichols film.

Nichols has been earning his auteur stripes all decade long with his strange spare fables like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He keeps things day-to-day but knows how intense that can be. And here, at the centre of what becomes a national case the voices in the courts might rage with oratory but on the ground it's bricks wrapped in magazine articles left on a driver's seat or faceless men in utes following closely on darkening country roads. The hatred is in the air, the light and the heatwaves on the bitumen, never quite breaking out of a constantly worrying smoulder.

Mostly, though, there is the life of a growing family. Kids are born, play and run in front of cars. Mum and dad go about their lives. The lawyers and the Life Magazine reporters come and go as we are reminded that these people are living with this outrage among the breakfast cereal mornings and sitcom nights in front of the tv. The space and light of a house has seldom been so palpable on screen as here. This can be measured and studious but it isn't boring for a second. And when he needs it Nichols can bring the action or the tension out without effort. The sense of deliberate helmsmanship is continuous.

And when it's time for the lawyers to front the court and make their epochal speeches it has a pageant quality, the bench of judges blurred as the educated heads appear in close focus. In turn they begin their cases but we hear little more than the very first statements. Spielberg or Stone would forge an extra hour of French polished set dressing and mighty declamation, a faltering line here or there to instil a little doubt at the outcome, perhaps, but moving toward a great motion in history. Here we get Richard Loving working on his car and Mildred doing the ironing. At what might have been a great echoing gavel of a climax in a more conventional film we get a smile, the kind of smile that would have happened anyway but now is eased with conclusion.

So, how do we put up with it, this courtroom epic that isn't? Casting, for starters. The central pair carry a load. Ruth Negger's Mildred runs on anger and intelligence but knows where she comes from and can falter in speaking her mind or asking the life-changing questions. Joel Edgerton is all containment. His near albino presentation and tightly controlled body language speak for most of his screen time which features so few lines you'd swear the ghost of Stanley Kubrick edited them. A grunt can go a long way in this role and frequently must. Together, the couple convince us of the threat of the world outside their door and the strengths that carry them through the hours. Also, Nichols' eye for landscape and space has not failed him. This is a stunning visual feast.

For a story that had broad brush politics written all over it, Nichols' refusal to submit to studio-style grandstanding is admirable. He gives us the life worth debating rather than the debate as he knows we can do that ourselves, and probably will, after the credits roll out. And one final point of achievement: this story that concerns southern U.S. country folk and the traditions of American oratory, there isn't a syllable of religious pleading in the entire running time. Nichols himself is from the South (his Mud was shot in his native Arkansas) and surely intended this to weigh with his American audiences. He continues to interest me.

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