In one sense, Loving, the new film from writer and director Jeff Nichols, is about the slow march of justice and a large decision--the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling against anti-miscegenation laws--with large consequences. But the film is about less than that, and as a result, a little more.

It begins on a porch in Virginia, as a nervous woman tells a man that she is pregnant. The man says he's excited, the woman is relieved, and they share a moment of affection.

This is the film in its essence and focus. It is about two people who love each other, and the work necessary to grow and sustain that love. The fact that the two, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, spend much of their time living under the threat of punishment for that love is not unimportant, but it is tangential to their connection--it just adds to the work of their relationship.

The film is about other types of work, too, that extend from love--the work of making food, making a home, making a family. Richard has the wide gait of a man who toils at repetitive, physical labor. He is a brick layer, and he takes a quiet pride in his work, in building things and building them right. Mildred has the heavy eyes and finesse of a woman who runs a home and raises children. Hers is a different kind of pride, the kind that comes from making order from the chaos children create.

Early in the film, Richard and Mildred are married in Washington D.C. and return to Virginia, where interracial marriage is illegal. Once their marriage is discovered, they are arrested and plead guilty, trading jail time for freedom--so long as they leave Virginia for 25 years. They return for the birth of their first child and are caught again, receive amnesty, and retreat to their exile in the nation's capital.

Five years later, Mildred decides this freedom is not freedom at all, and she and Richard sneak back to Virginia to live and hide. Mildred writes a letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, which is passed to the ACLU. Their case starts, stalls, and starts again years later.

In the interim, Richard and Mildred live in fear of being found, and Mildred risks their invisibility by opening their home to the media so that their story may be told. In part prompted by a Life Magazine profile, their case is taken to the Supreme Court and won. They learn of the verdict over the phone.

This is Nichols' fifth consecutive film set in the American South, and his attitude toward it is unusual. Neither disparaged nor fetishized, southern culture is treated as normal, a rare stance in an American cinema that uses northern dialect and culture as its dominant idiom. To Nichols, the rural South is not just a boiling cauldron of hate--though there is plenty of it--but certain rhythms and sensations. It is open space, a place to grow and work free from the clutter of the city.

As a result, Nichols doesn't make a fuss of Richard and Mildred's marriage. They are not set against other couples, or used as a springboard for debates about morality and tradition. This is not a film of speeches, but rather one of devotion on a small scale.

Nichols has a feel for the intimacy of everyday life, the kind that isn't sexy but is the stuff upon which relationships are built. His eye is observational and specific, and it tends to catch subtle moments of non-verbal communication that don't seem like much in isolation, but which build toward a picture of unconditional love.

It is not mentioned in the film, but Richard and Mildred meet as children and grow into each other. This biographical fact does not need to be stated, because you can see it. Their affection is not communicated through speech, but through gestures, touches, and glances. Not once in the film do they say they love each other, but they do love; they make a point to embrace when they're tired, make sacrifices large and small, take care of each other.

Each is played by an actor who is so good at doing. Great acting is often associated with certain signifiers of effort and intent: accents, physical transformations, outward theatrics. The first two are part of Edgerton and Negga's performances, but they are put in service of something else, something larger than imitation.

Edgerton, who was the highlight of Nichols' previous film, the occasionally stunning by uneven Midnight Special, is even better here. His acting is not the appearance of effort, but of expressing the inability to express oneself, while hinting at the torrents of feeling that wrestle in him. His Richard is a man of routine rather than extraordinary action. He emits words in choked bursts, as if pinched from his throat. His shoulders hunch and, despite his natural bulk, he looks as if he wants to fold into himself, burdened by his imposing figure.

Mildred is the active agent in their relationship; she is the one who takes risks. She writes the letter that ignites their case and lets the media share their story at the peril of being discovered. Grace is not something you can teach an actor, but Negga has it, and she isn't given enough time to show it. The film orients itself toward Richard, leaving the work of homemaking mostly unseen.

The temptation, with films that depict moments of great social importance, is to widen your focus and capture a movement rather than the people behind it. This can be a noble intention, but it is rarely great filmmaking. Loving takes a seismic, historic triumph and makes it small. It doesn't need to create conflict, because it is there, every day. It is the fear of being imprisoned by a great, irrational hate, and its salvation is a touch, a glance, a promise that it will be okay.