La La Land might be the movie everyone's talking about, but Jeff Nichols' Loving is a quiet gem of a film that deserves equal credit
If the Golden Globes are anything to go by (which, barring a few past curve balls, they very often are), it looks likely that La La Land will jazz-hand its way to Oscar glory come February. As well as netting a record number of awards at the Golden Globes, the movie has done a roaring trade at the box office – two things which don’t always happen at once – taking £5 million more than any other film in its opening weekend.
It’s easy to see why La La Land is such a hit. Even when you subtract the superb Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling from the equation, the Hollywood musical is surely the January movie we all need right now, with its primary-coloured optimism, politics-free storyline and gorgeously stylised LA setting. 2017 was clearly not the year for the cold grittiness that made The Revenant 2016’s critical darling (though it was Spotlight that won Best Picture in the end – a tribute to journalism during a time before Twitter and fake news… little did we know how timely that would come to feel).
So La La Land is expected to take the lion’s share of the awards come February, along with (probably) the excellent Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea.
But at the Cannes Film Festival in May last year, a different movie was busy garnering quite a few early Oscar predictions of its own: Jeff Nichols’s Loving, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.
Released on 3rd February, the film tells the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, who became embroiled in a long legal battle when the State of Virginia ruled their 1958 marriage unlawful under state anti-miscegnation laws. The Loving v. Virginia case ended with a landmark ruling that finally banned laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Ruth Negga’s star has been on the rise for quite some time, but Loving is a watershed moment for the British actress. She is breathtakingly good as Mildred, striking the sort of balance between subtle imitation and real emotional depth that only a very fine actress can pull off. Equally, the (in my view much-underrated) Edgerton is superb as her quietly-spoken construction worker husband Richard, his shy outward shell barely concealing a touching vulnerability and deep devotion to Mildred. Long scenes pass with barely a word spoken between characters, but the duo’s on-screen chemistry makes it somehow impossible to look away.
Nichols tells the story in a simple, paired-back fashion, remaining mostly in the countryside of the Lovings’ native Virginia, before the pair are forced to move far away from their countryside birthplace to Washington. The action unspools chronologically, charting their marriage and subsequent arrest (after what Richard assumes is a tip-off) and the beginnings of their legal case.
There are no cinematic bells and whistles here – the success of the movie rests on the performances of Negga and Edgerton, which are spotless. There’s a particularly moving moment towards the end of the film, when the pair decide, to their lawyer’s dismay, not to be there in person when their case is brought to the Supreme Court. The couple’s lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) asks Richard if he’d like to pass on a message to the judge. ‘Yes – tell him I love my wife’ he says simply. In another movie a line like that would feel hackneyed, but in this quiet, understated gem of a movie it strikes just the right note.
Loving and its two leads might not triumph in the Oscar race, but performance-wise this really is as good as it gets.