Loving (2016)

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2016 hasn’t been the best year for biographical films it seems, because quite a few have ranged from being mediocre to only good. With the exception of Jackie, most of the films based on true stories this year have been overshadowed by narrative films featuring fictional stories. I know this is a broad generalization, because there have been some solid biopics this year, but sadly Loving is not one of them. In short, Loving is one of the more dull and meandering films of the year, which is a bitter disappointment, because if one seeks out an inspiring, moving film, Loving seems to be the perfect candidate. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

First of all, Loving is not a bad film. It isn’t even mediocre – it is just only slightly above average. The thing is, a film like Loving is supposed to soar with excellence, and unfortunately it just doesn’t, and it becomes a standard, unremarkable biopic that just never gets to the point it wants to, and it somehow does a great disservice to its remarkable true-life subjects, who deserved a much better film. Like I said, Loving is not a terrible film – it is just disappointingly average, and I didn’t expect that from a film like this, especially not with the people that were involved. Yet there are still some glowing aspects of this film that save it from being too average.

I have, for the longest time, been a supporter of Jeff Nichols. I have watched his career grow for the past half-decade, from when I saw Take Shelter. Loving seems to be a step back for Nichols, who has always seemed to have a tendency to favour the South as an area of interest (nothing wrong with that, its a fascinating region) – and when you have a filmmaker like Nichols who is somewhat preoccupied with the South (or in the case of Take Shelter, Ohio), it just makes sense that the racially tumultuous history of the region would play a part at some point. Loving, as expected, is Nichols’ response to the history, and he chose a fascinating story to tell – to its credit, the best part of Loving is that it told this story and set out to make it in the first place. That is more than enough to qualify it as being above average. The problem was the execution.

The film focuses on Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and his wife, Mildred (Ruth Negga), who reside in Virginia and break the law by doing the most despicable, shocking and cruel crime imaginable to the people of the state in 1958 – getting married. Faced with the penalty of going to prison, the couple decides to rather abide by the court’s ruling and leave the state. However, they want to return to their home-state, and engage in a long and somewhat tedious court battle that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and with the assistance of Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), they win the battle, not only for themselves, but for interracial couples across the country and throughout history.

I’ll cut to the chase – Ruth Negga is a phenomenal actress, and Loving is the perfect breakthrough for her as a leading lady star. In this film, she rises above the dire dullness and delivers one of the most touching and well-composed performances of the year. Telling so much of the story through her eyes, she manages to be expressive, moving and emotionally destructive with her dedicated performance here. I am just so glad Ruth Negga decided to give this kind of performance in a film like Loving, because this will undoubtedly act as a springboard to some truly exciting projects in the future, and will solidify her as a true talent. I can’t wait to see where Negga’s career goes next, but if she is always as good as she is in Loving, then I already consider myself a fan.

Unfortunately, her main co-star in this film is far from good. Joel Edgerton is an actor who shows promise, particularly in films like Black Mass and Zero Dark Thirty. I’m not sure how the role of Richard Loving was written, but I am sure it was more than just as a perpetually depressed, constantly serious curmudgeon? Now I know this is a sensitive story, and its an important one – but Joel Edgerton did absolutely nothing worthwhile in this film. He constantly looked like he was sulking, and while I am not aware of what Richard Loving was like in real life, I am pretty sure he wasn’t this detached and dull. For a character that we are supposed to connect with, Edgerton does a great job of making us feel complete apathy for his character, which is quite tragic.

The supporting cast isn’t any better. Nick Kroll tries his hand at dramatic territory, and while he wasn’t outright terrible, he was also not very good, and he constantly seemed to be trying to be the comic relief when no one actually asked for one. He seemed to be one step away from making a bad joke, and he often did. I like Kroll as a comedian, but as a dramatic actor, he doesn’t do a particularly good job. Michael Shannon is one of the best actors of his generation, and I was so happy when he showed up, because he brought quite an interesting character along with him – and I thought the film was actually taking a positive turn – and then Shannon just disappears after literally two scenes, taking away what could’ve been a tremendous piece of plot development. Still, its wonderful that Shannon has been a part of every one of Nichols’ films, which is pretty special.

Loving is painfully average. It tells an important story, but in such a way that isn’t very exciting or entertaining or inspiring. Often very dull, and without anything to induce much emotion, it just feels cold and detached from the fascinating true story. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, which is a shame because I really wanted to. Outside of Ruth Negga’s wonderful performance, there just isn’t anything very special about this film. I just hope everyone involved uses this film to their benefit, as a springboard to better projects. Loving is not a bad film, it just is an unremarkable one, and only worth it for the star-making performance Negga blesses us with.

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