(2016, Jeff Nichols)
[4 out of 5 stars]
"...rather than imagine expressiveness as public and dramatic, the argument for quiet asks about expressiveness that is shaped by the vagaries of the inner life. Such expressiveness is not necessarily articulate— it isn’t always publicly legible, and can be random and multiple in ways that makes it hard to codify singularly."
In high school I remember learning about Rosa Parks and her stand against segregation between black and white American citizens. When asked to get up and give up her seat for a white passenger in the bus, she refused. This small act of resistance eventually led to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, an important event for American civil rights. Her story struck a chord with me. I'm usually a quiet and reserved person and I always believed - or was led to believe - that those that can make changes in the world - the leaders - where not quiet or reserved. But her story resonated with me because it was the moment I realised that this was not true.
I couldn't stop thinking about Rosa Parks as I watched Jeff Nichols' elegant and delicate depiction of Richard and Mildred Loving, a shy, quiet couple whose untroubled lives are disturbed when the authorities barge inside their house at two in the morning, while the couple are fast asleep, and throw them in jail. Their crime is their love for each other. The policemen throw a look of contempt at the marriage certificate that hangs on the Loving's bedroom wall. They were married in DC (where interracial marriages are legal) but are building their first home in Virginia (where their marriage is a crime) where they live near their family.
Their legal case takes them all the way to the Supreme Court in the landmark and aptly named case Loving v Virginia, that changed interracial marriage legislation in America forever. It's a timely story, the universality of love and the universal right to marry and have a family is relevant to the issue of marriage equality (can you believe we're still arguing about this today) that this would have been ripe for high drama and grand gestures, considering the stakes involved.
But director Jeff Nichols chose to focus on the couple with the legal battle humming in the background. They were a reserved couple that their depth could have been lost had a director decided to place them in the spectacle of the media around the case. He respected their story enough to know that that approach would have suffocated the Lovings. This is a story so small but with so much depth I had to hold it in my hands and press it against my ear to sense its beating heart. Then clasp it close to my chest - like a precious and delicate keepsake.
Nichols is really good at communicating something without the use of words, dialogue or grand gestures. What he shows and how he shows it is enough for us to understand and empathise. The lines are sparse but enough. The rest is said by gestures and glances. The structure alludes. It suggests rather than declares. It is incomplete perhaps because there is no one else, other than Richard and Mildred, who can fully express what they are experiencing, and maybe there isn't any way to do so. I always welcome allusions and ellipses in narrative structure especially in film and more importantly for a story about real people. When a director can take a step back and accept the fact that he or she can only express a sliver of actuality, is difficult to do. It requires a level of sensitivity and consideration in part of the filmmaker to be able to do that and LOVING is probably Nichols' most nuanced example of this. The insufficiency lies in the message.
The lines are economic but its simplicity is what makes it poetic. A quiet expressiveness that exteriorises the interior with only a handful of words. Read the following excerpt from the script in the opening scene where Mildred tells Richard that she's pregnant. It reads like poetry:
RICHARD listens. He’s a white man with close cropped blonde hair and a dark neck burned from working outside.
He takes in the information.
A smile breaks across his face, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth. He quickly draws his lips over them, swallowing the smile. He’s shy, self-conscious of the teeth.
He begins to nod, a more reserved smile coming through.
Good. That’s real good.
From the script by Jeff Nichols
It shares many things with Jim Jarmusch' PATERSON, another quiet film about a loving couple that was released last year, in that both express poetic sentiment without being figurative, instead being expressive in its exactitude. No fillers, no flowery language, no extended monologues. Just sharp, concise and direct expression. When asked by his lawyer if Richard wants to say anything to the Supreme Court judges, he replies with (Joel Edgerton takes a couple of beats) a single line: "tell them I love my wife." It's hard to describe into words this truly moving scene. It's hard to describe the sensations. The poetry resides around the words not within the words themselves. It's in the silence and the inhaled breaths of air. Its the way the music steadily wraps itself around the scene. Richard takes a few seconds to compose his message and it comes out in a few words. It's a relief.
Ruth Negga is absolutely wonderful in her role as Mildred. She matches Edgerton with her nuanced and thoughtful portrayal. In the scene where the couple are standing in the middle of a field, he tells her this is where he's going to build a house for her. Again, the music and the wind embrace both of them. The camera stays on her face and her eyes, the floodgates by which her happiness pour out of. She doesn't say a thing. She just stands there on the green grass. Pure poetry and pure love captured in a frame.