I recently saw Lion in the theater and later that day, watched the DVD of Loving. The similarities were striking.
Both are based on true stories, one very recent, and the other, still within my lifetime. Both were good-looking films (Lion is more self-consciously beautiful), with good to excellent performances. Both could have exploited their emotional storylines, but instead are rather cool products (Loving is more subdued) that pull back from the excesses possible in their stories. Lion could have been a tearjerker, and Loving could have been an angry political statement. It’s to their credit that they are neither.
Lion tells the story of a young man separated by his family, raised on another continent, and facing a growing desire to connect with his biological family. He is played as a child by the adorable and talented Sunny Pawar, and Pawar has to hold the screen and the film in a way that rivals Tom Hank’s work in Cast Away. There are long periods without dialogue where we willingly follow him, and emotionally, we are with him all the way.
He grows up to be Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire and The Exotic Marigold Hotel), who does the strongest and most sensitive work of his career here. Patel has become Hollywood’s go-to Indian leading man, and his comic chops have been well demonstrated. What is a joy to watch his fine dramatic work here. The script tends to wander a little in the middle of the film, but like Pawar, we are with Patel all the way.
As good if not better is his adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman. Kidman is such a celebrity and strong film presence that I almost forgot that she could be an excellent actress, as she is here. She is precise in her acting decisions, and yet relatable and maternal. It’s a pleasure to be reminded about what she can do.
Rooney Mara plays Patel’s love interest, and it is here that the story is at its weakest. Mara is “fine” in her role, but it’s underwritten, and the actress, in spite of strong performances in the past, is rather recessive here. There are any numbers of ways the story could have used her character to push things along narratively, emotionally, or even in terms of cultural difference. But none of these possibilities is explored in any depth. The whole relationship is a lost opportunity.
The film moves along at a firm but measured pace, which can add some frustration (“OK, I get it—can we move on, please?”). But the restraint prevents the film from jerking the viewer from one emotional high to the next, and the gradual accumulation of fact and emotion is released, satisfactorily, at a genuinely touching climax. Then (spoiler alert) there is a kind of second climax that too earns whatever tears are being shed.
Loving, too, moves at a measured pace, but perhaps suffers for it a little more than Lion. Coming out in a year of increased racial tension, the film focuses intently on the relationship between the two—a black/Native American woman and a white man, rather than the social or political context around their troubles. The fact that the case against them went to the Supreme Court is underplayed, always playing second to the supposedly close and loving relationship of the two.
The script certainly makes it clear that this is a couple that is simple, deeply, in love, and that Jim Crow laws and attitudes are the enemy of their relationship, almost as if they stood alone in just wanting to be left alone. The film almost moves outside of the context of racism at times to support the concept that any two people who care about one another should be able to get married. That’s a more modern argument that tends to obfuscate the time period and the particular prejudices of the time and the story. The film at least states that their struggles will benefit other interracial couples who want to marry, but in the film’s attempt to circle back to the central love relationship, it puts a great deal of pressure on the two central actors to warrant our primary attention in the midst of so many other important issues.
So it’s really up to Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton to work at continually drawing our attention away from the unfairness, hypocrisy, anger, prejudice, and judicial swirl around them, knowing (as many in the audience would) how important this case was and how loathsome the hate around them. But they don’t quite succeed. Negga is the stronger by far, but perhaps because of direction, her performance involves a growing confidence that is less gradual than bumpy. Nevertheless, this is an actress of intelligence and substance, and the performance is a lovely thing to behold. Edgerton, meanwhile, underplays his role so much, and has such a continual scowl-like expression that it is hard to connect with him. He and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) presented us with two of the most internal male performances of the last year, but Affleck’s is full of such radiating pain, confusion and suppressed anger that we can read into his silences and stillness. Edgerton plays a hardworking regular guy who just happens to love a woman of another race, but we don’t get inside of his head or heart enough to see either her attraction to him or how the brouhaha around his marriage really affects him.
The film generally avoids stereotyping, but there is a rather evil policeman and a borderline overeager lawyer. Other than that, the film presents what is ostensibly a collection of real people; it’s just that we can tap into only a few of them.
The film also falls into the current trap of over-informing us with the printed word at the end of the film–of not just the subsequent events, but the specific importance of it, interpreted for us in a way we can neatly wrap up and put in our pockets. The otherwise strong The Imitation Game did it as well, and Hidden Figures nearly fell into that trap, but stayed within the borders of the story we just saw. This is a tendency that reduces these films, just as the film is wrapping up, to something less than a work of art and more of a visualized sociopolitical statement.
Happily, in Loving we have a film that will stand as THE film about the Loving family and their story. There have been lesser films about great subjects (Red Tails, In the Heart of the Sea, Jackie), so we finally stand grateful that the subject, if perhaps too intensely focused, is well presented by this film.