It was the mid-nineteen-fifties, and in Virginia Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) had fallen in love, but there was an issue in that he was a white man and she was a black woman. The laws of the state decreed that any miscegenation was strictly illegal, therefore in effect they were breaking the law by being a romantic couple, but as the drag races Richard organised illustrated, the mixing of the races was something that happened every day even if the authorities were turning a blind eye. One day, he took Mildred out to an acre of land he had just bought and told her his plans: he would build a house for them both to raise a family, so that prompted the question: would she marry him?
They both must have been aware of the legal complications this placed the pair under, but as they had not received a huge amount of hassle for their romance before, skipping across the border to Washington to be wed did not seem like it would lead to any great upheaval, not knowing they would bring about a major change in American law by their actions. Writer and director Jeff Nichols, basing this on a recent documentary on the Lovings, sought to present their tale in as matter of fact manner as possible, all the better to dial down the sensationalism that might have been inherent in it and allow the audience their space to mull over the implications of what they were watching, in a very particular aspect.
That was to render the relationship at the heart of the film as utterly ordinary; Nichols could have built up their love to operatic levels, real triumph against adversity stuff, and there remained Hollywood filmmakers who would have been happy to do precisely that. However, that would have made the Lovings into something akin to fantasy hero figures, removed from the real world as the majority of the audience would have lived it - fair enough, it was still taking place decades before the work was crafted, but not so far back that it was distant history and when it was released there were plenty of Americans who would have remembered what the pre-Civil Rights laws would have been like.
Besides, the problems with race in the United States, across the world in fact, had not been eradicated no matter that leaps and bounds had been made in reforming the official line on prejudice, and to depict an interracial marriage as something that should not only have been no big deal, but nobody else's business but the couple's too was important. Many criticised Nichols for taking back the drama too far so that it became slow and studied to a far too subtle degree, and it was true enough this was not a film that generated nail-biting tension - the prejudice we saw largely stemmed from the authorities in Virginia, though there were a few moments when it was clear there were those who were content with things the way they were. We had seen so many racial dramas down the years, that we were anticipating some awful violence around the corner.
That did not happen, the damage here was more emotional as the Lovings are arrested and ordered to leave their home, which they agree to, not having any other course of action available to them aside from jail time. But living in the city is ill-suited to Mildred especially, who longs to be with her family, and bringing up their new children in this environment disturbs her. It was all about that perturbed feeling here, that something was inherently wrong and needed fixing, and though they were playing quiet, private people Edgerton and especially Irish cult actress Negga proved they did not need big speeches to make it plain for us to see how their characters were feeling. If you could adjust to the pace, the huge degree of respect and affection Richard and Mildred had for one another was genuinely moving, particularly in a world where all the law could see was what colour they were and nothing else. Sometimes you can change the world without grand gestures, Loving told us, you can change it simply by being a decent person. Music by David Wingo.