It wasn’t long after the first press screening of the period drama Loving at Cannes on Monday morning, that the movie was already generating awards-season talk. It’s absurdly early for Oscar to be sure, but it’s also not hard to see why. In Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud) dramatizes one of America’s most seminal civil rights Supreme Court cases, Loving v. Virginia, but he does so by focusing on the quiet, heartbreaking love story at its center: the marriage of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), a black woman and a white man who were arrested in their home — in their bedroom — in Virginia one night in 1958 because the simple fact of their union violated state law. When the credits for the movie rolled, it received one of the festival’s biggest ovations yet, with more applause for the actors’ names when they appeared onscreen.
At the press conference after the screening, Nichols said, “I truly believe this is one of the most pure love stories in American history,” and indeed, almost every beat in the story flows from that point. The movie is remarkable in its restraint and understated grace, depicting the poor but proud community both Richard and Mildred come from, where babies are born at home and drag racing is the main entertainment. Richard, a simple, taciturn man who loves his wife deeply, thinks no one will care much about their nuptials, an assumption that proves grievously wrong after their arrest, when they’re threatened with jail time and the best possible outcome is that they’re not allowed back in the state for 25 years.
Edgerton is terrific: Almost unrecognizable with shorn yellow hair and false teeth, he chews his lip, mulls over the words that are difficult to express, and seems physically stunned by the injustice that has found him. (There’s a neat moment late in the movie when he’s essentially confronted with his white privilege by a black friend who reminds him that he’s finally got a faint idea about what it’s like.) It’s Negga, though, who leaves the biggest impression. An Ethiopian-Irish actress whose most notable claim to fame so far was a role in 12 Years a Slave that ended up cut from the movie, Negga has huge eyes that register every emotion, and she gives Mildred an indomitable will beneath her mild, warm exterior. A confirmed country girl, Mildred will not raise her children in the city, and she will accept help from the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who comes calling (comedian Nick Kroll in a rare dramatic role) when he senses that he’s got a historic case on his hands.
One of the movie’s more extraordinary feats is how subtle it is with such potentially melodramatic material. There’s a Malfoy-like sheriff (Marton Csokas) who wants the Lovings run out of town for good, but other than that, the movie embodies the culture of violence without portraying any actual violence and instead uses the persistent dread and paranoia of a police state in which the hammer could drop at any moment. Even the climactic court hearing is underplayed — though Kroll and Jon Bass, who plays his more experienced co-counsel, are saddled with the task of reminding the Lovings (and the audience) just how big a deal this case is.
At the press conference, Nichols drew parallels between his movie and current legal battles over so-called “bathroom bills” in states like North Carolina that want to legislate where transgender people relieve themselves. “Hopefully, [Loving] makes people think about the people who are at the center of these debates,” he said of the movie, which will hit theaters in November. Whatever effect it has on the political scene, he, Edgerton, and Negga have gone a long way in memorializing Mildred and Richard. Interestingly, the Lovings didn’t attend the Supreme Court arguments that decided their family’s fate. Instead, the movie shows scenes of Richard and Mildred playing with their three kids in the yard and putting them to bed. Then, in a lovely shot, the camera stands in the hall as they go into their bedroom, and she softly, but firmly, closes the door.
Related: Read our complete Cannes coverage here.
(Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival)