One might call coincidence the universe's way of practicing irony. Certainly few historical coincidences have been as apt as the last name of the interracial married couple who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to have their marriage recognized by the state of Virginia. Their name was "Loving," and now that name also belongs to Jeff Nichols' film about the couple and, indeed, about the gerund.
The Rob Reiner version of this story would likely focus on the courtroom battle, with the couple portrayed as hyperarticulate crusaders for justice, the lawyers delivering big courtroom speeches, and the film's composer laying on thick orchestration to reassure us of what we're supposed to be feeling. Writer-director Jeff Nichols ("Mud," "Take Shelter," "Midnight Special") eschews all of that, instead enabling an easy realism and an intimate domestic perspective on events that became consequential to national history and the civil rights movement.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving (née Jeter), a couple that marries, winds up thrown in separate cells for violating the Racial Integrity Act, and reluctantly begins a long legal process to affirm their basic human right to live as one in their home state of Virginia. As characters, the Lovings each evince a distinct brand of quiet strength, of plainspoken integrity. The film takes their lead, replacing histrionics with a genuine curiosity about what it must have been like to live this story from the inside.
As a result, some will find "Loving" dishwater dull or, perhaps, perversely withholding. Nichols frequently builds up tensions that the story doesn't pay off in accordance with the expectations and conventions he teases. This, too, resembles life: what actually happens during personal crisis is bad enough, but the psychology of stress stokes paranoia of worst-case scenarios that rarely come to pass.
Nichols' good-luck charm Michael Shannon turns up here, as "Life" magazine photojournalist Grey Villet, in a sweet little sequence recreating a photo shoot that (along with the HBO documentary "The Loving Story") helped to inform the production. Also quite fine in his understated scenes of racial animosity: Marton Csokas as the sheriff who throws the couple in the slammer. And Nichols effectively pulls a Steven Soderbergh by casting a comedian (Nick Kroll) in the essentially dramatic role of Bernie Cohen, an ACLU lawyer who's learning on the job.
Of course, the film belongs to Edgerton ("The Gift") and Negga (also wowin' 'em on TV's "Preacher"), who both seem likely to garner well-deserved Best Actor and Best Actress nominations. In this story of two Americans who just want to live in peace, together, high spirits turn to melancholy. Even in victory, the bell of racism can never be un-rung. As we all learned in school, "Loving v. Virginia" brings justice. But Nichols shows us the human-sized dimensions, the ironies left out of the history textbooks. What did Richard Loving do for a living, and for the love of his family? He was a construction worker. And so, in scene after scene, he builds walls.