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"LOVING"
(2016) (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A white man and black woman must contend with the ramifications of being married and living in the state of Virginia during the 1950s and '60s.
PLOT:
It's 1958 and Richard (JOEL EDGERTON) and Mildred Loving (RUTH NEGGA) travel to Washington, D.C. to get married, what with interracial marriages still being illegal in neighboring Virginia. While Richard's midwife mother is a bit cool if accepting of the union, Mildred's family, including her sister, Garnet (TERRI ABNEY), have no problems with that, nor does Richard's black, drag racing friend, Raymond (ALANO MILLER).

Those who do have problems include Caroline County Sheriff Brooks (MARTON CSOKAS) who arrests the couple for breaking the law and Judge Bazille (DAVID JENSEN) who threatens them with extended jail time. Thankfully for them, local lawyer Frank Beazely (BILL CAMP) gets the charges and incarceration time dropped in exchange for the couple moving out of the state. They do by relocating to Washington, D.C., but when they return to have Richard's mother deliver their first baby, Sheriff Brooks gets wind of that and arrests them again.

They return to D.C. and have more kids, but while Richard is content with living there, Mildred hates the notion of their kids growing up in the city and having to play on the streets. Accordingly, she takes someone's advice to contact Robert Kennedy about their situation, and while he can't help out, volunteer ACLU attorney Bernie Cohen (NICK KROLL) wants to take their case. That's not only due to the injustice they've suffered, but also because he thinks this could be a landmark case that could go all of way to the Supreme Court, a sentiment shared by fellow attorney Phil Hirschkop (JON BASS).

With Richard simply wanting to lay low and not make any waves, Mildred accepts the spotlight including having them featured by LIFE Magazine photographer Grey Villet (MICHAEL SHANNON). As the months pass by, the couple tries to get on with their lives after having returned to live in Virginia, all while waiting for the legal process to play out and determine whether they can live there as husband and wife.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Having reviewed movies for two decades, I've pretty much seen every sort of story told just about every way imaginable. Some of the storytelling techniques work better than others (and I have my favorites as well as dislikes among those), but sometimes that really depends on the sort of tale that's being told.

When it comes to movies about people who've been wronged and then efforts to make things right, there are typically two ways of going about creating such narratives. The first is the sort that focuses on the efforts (and thus life to one extent or another) of the fixer, if you will.

That sort of character could be a lawyer who decides to represent the victims in order to fight the good fight in the court of law. On the other spectrum, it could also feature a vigilante who forgoes the usual legal process by serving as judge, jury, and executioner. That approach usually focuses on the procedure to be deployed, the obstacles facing that, and the battle to execute it, be that literal or figurative.

The other approach focuses on the victims and the repercussions -- on them and others in their lives -- of having been wronged. It's usually a more intimate style of storytelling that can include the court of other means of setting matters straight, but usually has such scenes supplementing rather than overshadowing the personal matters.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has opted for the second method in "Loving," a solid but sometimes inert dramatic period piece that focuses on Richard and Mildred Loving. While those names have mostly been forgotten from time marching forward, they were the interracial Virginia couple whose battle for marriage rights (Loving v. Virginia) went from the local Caroline County courthouse all of the way to the Supreme Court for a landmark 1967 ruling.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga embody the Lovings through exceptionally strong performances which is important since the film revolves far more around those characters than the involved plot mechanics involving their arrest (for being interracially married in Virginia), their forced move out of the state (to remain married and start a family) and the eventual involvement of lawyers (played here by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass) eager to change the law (and maybe make a name for themselves in legal circles).

What's present works decently enough and the two leads certainly deliver plenty of powerful emotion through their acting. Even so, audiences like seeing proactive rather than reactive characters and the mostly subdued "we just want to be left alone" stance occasionally lessens some of the film's thunder.

Yes, the lawyers eventually show up and get to work, but all of the material related to that clearly takes a back seat to observing the characters and their plight. Even the pivotal arguments in front of and then eventual ruling by the Supreme Court are given only scant attention.

It's almost as if the storytelling approach is that such legal matters are important to the characters' outcome, but not important enough to waste time showing much of that. Like most of the film, that tremendous moment regarding the court's decision is relegated to a subdued (if quietly emotional) reaction to the phone call alerting Mrs. Loving to the ruling and her future life.

Some viewers might like that approach there and overall, but for yours truly it prevents the film from really soaring and leaves too much of it dramatically inert. Thankfully, the performances save the day, but those looking for a powerful examination of a landmark court ruling might be let down to one degree or another by the more subdued and intimate portrayal. Solid but not great, "Loving" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed November 28, 2016 / Posted December 2, 2016


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