Tuesday 18 April 2017

Loving (2017) - Movie Review

Racism, much like any other identity-based prejudice, has never made that much sense to me on a fundamental level. I understand man’s inherent distrust of whatever is different to themselves, but at the same time, the idea of considering someone else to be lesser than myself based purely on something about them that they were born with or are otherwise unable to change is ludicrous. Call it a side effect of living most of my life with numerous labels that immediately had me pinned as being different from everyone else, but I never saw the point in any of it. Of course, just because I don’t understand it, that doesn’t mean that I am blind to its existence in the real world; far fucking from it. As such, films like this could be released at any time of the year and it will always be timely. While you ponder how depressing that is, let’s get into today’s film.

The plot: Construction worker Richard (Joel Edgerton) is happily in love with his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga). After getting married out-of-state, their coupling causes turbulence in their home in Virginia where such arrangements are against the law. Wanting to live their lives comfortably without the police or other authority figures hassling them, they take their case to the Supreme Court in a hearing that would change marriage laws from then on.

Considering how very down-to-earth this story is as the film depicts, it would honestly take some real talent to keep something this downplayed from being instantly dull to sit through. Enter Joel Edgerton, quite possibly one of the best actors that Australia has ever produced and that reputation holds true here. Through an incredibly humbling presence and a character attitude that goes against pretty much every other Oscar-aiming historical film of this ilk, he imbues a sense of reality to the character that does the whole film a service. Negga as his wife, while showing the more gung ho side of the coin in terms of the central conflict, makes for a disarmingly warm presence on screen and her and Edgerton make for a very nice couple.
Marton Csokas as the local sheriff, while wearing the villain colours that he’s been gotten some decent mileage out of, keeps on the more believable side of bigotry which adds to the realism of the production, Nick Kroll and Jon Bass as the Loving’s legal team hit meekness and determination equally as a pretty good double act and Michael Shannon, even for as small as his role ultimately is, leaves the audience with a definite impression and adds quite a bit to the film’s stance when it comes to activism.

When bringing a real-life story to the big screen, especially if it’s a story that has since become largely influential in how certain areas of society function today, filmmakers usually tend to portray them with our modern-day sensibilities built into it. Basically, if a story goes on to become important, its retelling is framed as something important. This film, by contrast, goes for the exact opposite approach. Rather than treating the story as this earth-shaking decision, it is treated as the story of two ordinary Americans who just happened to get caught up in the Civil Rights movement. The Lovings don’t want to change the world or even make it a better place for their children; they just want to live their own lives without fear of being arrested at any given moment. 
This film essentially takes the insular mindset that went into Freeheld and distilled into a story that is all about the people and far less about the court case itself. This is evident from how, even for an over two-hour-long film, we spend maybe 5-10 collective minutes inside a courtroom, if even that much.

To this end, it really helps that the characters are portrayed as realistically as they are. Richard is about as far removed from your typical Hollywood leading role as you can get, not wanting attention brought onto him so that he can just live comfortably with his wife and children. Given a line of questioning that comes his way during the third act, it’d be far too easy for this to be a depiction of an apathetic white man who wants to avoid the situation because, as a white man, it concerns him the least. Alas, this isn’t the case. Instead, he merely comes across as someone more Joe Bloggs than Jo Vallentine.
It’s Mildred who is the more proactive between them, more willing to participate in what their lawyers want to engage in in order to gain them their liberties. But even their allies fall into this category as well. Cohen is shown as not being that experienced in legal matters, same as his associate Hirschkop, right down to borrowing another lawyer’s office just so that he could meet the Lovings in an official capacity. Photographer Grey Villet, for as small a presence he has in the film, enforces this as well once he gets into how he got his job with LIFE magazine through a particularly dangerous venture just to secure a photo.

Through these characters, and the way the story itself is treated, we end up reaching an idea that is starting to lose its ground in the face of modern social justice. As I said, we tend to view these sorts of cases with hindsight, attaching the significance that they would later gain to their contemporary circumstances. Hell, that mindset is probably the reason why Hidden Figures turned out as soapboxy as it did. However, something that often gets lost in the shuffle is that, for as great as their deeds may have been, they are still ordinary people. Before the days of social media activism, people didn’t set out to do incredible things; they were just trying to make their own circumstances just that little bit better, in an action that just happened to set a precedent for the world as we know it today.
Through this, more so than anything strictly to do with racial prejudice or even race as a whole, this film creates a feeling of optimism in its audience. Revolutions, changes, overhauls; whatever you want to call them, they only happen through the advent of the everyday person. And even then, it rarely if ever happens by design. This film, through its down-to-earth intentions, portray the idea that all one needs to do is ‘the right thing’ and change will come. As passive as it may sound, I honestly find a lot of merit in that statement. I think we need to stop trying to change the world, and just try to be good people within it.

All in all, this is a refreshingly underplayed take on the usual Oscar bait drama formula, highlighting the humanity in the characters to bring the inherent commonality of their struggle to the forefront. The acting hits realistic without becoming dull in the process, the story is kept nice and small to fit the characters involved and the writing approaches the story that keeps it within the historical context of the time while still building on the usual themes of tolerance and determination that fuel these types of stories. With how everyone and their mother is trying to be an activist through the widespread nature of social media, it’s films like this that should be able to keep people humble while they try to change the world.

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