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Dramatically intense, ‘Loving’ needs more emotional punch

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star in "Loving." | Focus Features

Without warning or warrant, cops burst into a Virginia home in the middle of the night, dragging a pregnant woman and her husband out of their beds, hauling them away and locking them up behind bars.

Their crime: They were an interracial couple in the wrong place at a very, very wrong time.

Jeff Nichols’ well-filmed but curiously stoic “Loving” is based on the true story of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter Loving (Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who were convicted in 1958 of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute and were threatened with 25-year prison sentences if they didn’t leave the state.

The Lovings stayed together, raised a family and fought the decision on a variety of fronts, with their case finally making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The landmark Loving v. Virginia civil rights decision struck down ignorant, racist decrees prohibiting interracial marriage.

It’s a great love story and a fascinating legal battle more than worthy of the big-screen, awards-season treatment, and Edgerton and Negga each deliver fine, quietly powerful performances.

But as good as these actors are, “Loving” is a rather tepid love story. (One could argue the dynamic between Richard and Mildred, in which love often is expressed with a simple touch of the hand or a glance across the room, is more subtle and realistic than some overheated movie romance. Still. From the beginning of their romance, there’s little indication of WHY they’re so drawn to one another and why they’ll risk so much to be together.)

Edgerton (who was featured in Nichols’ excellent “Midnight Special”) goes all-in with his portrayal of Richard Loving, from the appropriately yellowed teeth to the spot-on accent to the matter-of-fact manner in which Richard gets up every morning, grabs his construction worker’s tools and heads off to work.

Once Richard’s home, all he wants to do is tinker with his cars (he and his friends are big-time drag racers), have a beer or two, and hold his best girl Mildred. He’s a man of very, very few words, and his way of letting off steam is walking out of the room and letting the screen door slam behind him.

Negga’s Mildred is shy as well, but she’s more openly friendly, more outwardly passionate — and when the Lovings find themselves persecuted by the law, it’s Mildred who takes the lead in meetings and phone calls with the lawyers. There are moments of pure grace in Negga’s performance.

Nichols seems so intent on not overdramatizing the Lovings’ story and sticking to historical fact, “Loving” seems stuck in neutral for long stretches. Nearly every time a character leaves a room, said individual pauses for a meaningful glance. Courtroom sequences, including the final showdown in front of the Supreme Court in which the Lovings were not present, are mostly muted and without theatrics.

Again: probably accurate, but dramatically dry.

When “Loving” DOES amp up the conflict, it feels a bit forced. The lawmen — most notably Marton Csokas as the chillingly, casually hateful Sheriff Brooks — who lock up Richard and Mildred are stereotypical good ol’ boy, mid-20th century racists — and they lay it on thick with the rough treatment and the Biblical rationalizations for their vile beliefs. And then they simply disappear from the movie when the case takes a different direction.

Another loose thread: somebody called the cops on Richard and Mildred in the first place. Mildred’s family talks about how someone had to tip off the police and let them know about this couple who were living far off the grid in the Virginia woods. We never find out who had it in for them. That’s fine, this isn’t a courtroom mystery — but why have characters raise the issue in the first place?

The cinematography, the set design, the costumes, the overall feel of “Loving: all first-rate. Negga and Edgerton are undeniably good. I was impressed. I just wish I’d been more deeply moved.

★★1⁄2

Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Jeff Nicols. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements). Running time: 123 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.