A romance changes American history in 'Loving' (PG-13)

“Loving” is an unpretentious film about unassuming real people, but don’t let that mislead you.

Just as Richard and Mildred Loving ended up overturning the status quo and making American legal history, so this feature on their lives by writer-director Jeff Nichols turns out to be a film of quiet but quite significant strengths.

Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter,” “Midnight Special”) has made an involving socially conscious drama about the interracial couple whose marriage, illegal in their home state of Virginia, led to the unanimous 1967 Supreme Court ruling that racist anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.

But “Loving” is hardly a legal drama rife with attorney strategies and courtroom scenes. It’s concerned with how it happened that two ordinary people, distraught over being trapped for years in the coils of a pitiless system, came to feel enough was enough.

Nichols was born and raised in Arkansas, and his Southern background intensifies his familiarity with the material. He’s also helped greatly by his two stars, a luminous Ruth Negga, who is transcendent as Mildred, and Joel Edgerton, whose involvement in the role of Richard grows as the film progresses.

“Loving” is based in part on Nancy Buirski’s moving 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story,” which includes potent excerpts from footage shot of the couple by ABC News in 1965 and 1967 as well as expressive black and white photographs taken for Life Magazine by Grey Villet (played in the film by Michael Shannon).

Using that earlier documentary as a template, Nichols and his team have made “Loving” as accurate as they could without making it feel like a copy of reality or compromising its considerable emotional impact.

That impact starts with the opening scene on a back porch in deeply rural Virginia in 1958, when Mildred tells Richard she’s pregnant and he smiles and says “good.” Neither of these individuals is a big talker, but both actors are expert at conveying feeling with body language and facial expression, and at no point in the film do we doubt that these people love each other very much.

The Lovings’ tiny hamlet of Central Point is something of an anomaly in the Virginia of the time, an area where population patterns have developed in a way that racial equality is taken for granted.

Though his burr haircut and blank stare make bricklayer Richard look like an archetypal redneck, he is genuinely color blind, someone who fits in with all races because it never occurs to him that he wouldn’t.

The state of Virginia, however, does not feel that way about race, and a few weeks after the Lovings return from being married in Washington, D.C., they are rousted at home at 2 a.m. by the police and arrested. When Richard points to his marriage license, framed on the wall, he’s curtly told by the sheriff, “That’s no good here.”

Sheriff Garnett Brooks (intensely played by Marton Csokas) and others in the Virginia legal system are not portrayed as drooling bigots but rather as individuals who genuinely believe that this dreadful system of racial separation is what God mandated.

Richard is imprisoned overnight before he can be bailed out, and his wife spends five terrifying days in prison. (“Loving” was shot in the same jail in Bowling Green, Virginia, where the real events took place.)

Though the Lovings could have been sentenced to a year in prison, a deal brokered by their lawyer suspends the sentence if they agree to leave the state and not return for 25 years.

But the Lovings are not interested in being zealots or martyrs for a cause. Eager to live back home and raise their children, they just want the whole thing to go away of its own accord. Which it will not.

Moving without being excessive, “Loving” makes some of its points by indirection, like a shot of the Lovings watching Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Though not a word is said, the implication is clear: We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t let these people live together in peace. It is a conundrum that is still with us, one that “Loving” beautifully illuminates.

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Michael Shannon.

Writer-director: Jeff Nichols.

A Focus Features release. Running time: 123 minutes. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway, Palace.

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