THIS IS A HECK of a time for a movie like Loving. The historical drama/romance, from director Jeff Nichols, examines the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial Virginia couple who were jailed for their marriage, and who won a 1967 Supreme Court case that declared any existing laws prohibiting interracial marriages as unconstitutional. It’s a story of civil rights, of the power and persistence of love, of the victory of human decency over hatred and prejudice. It’s positively brimming with the type of hope America needs right now. And it’s... kind of boring.

Nichols is a patient and humane filmmaker; his best movies, Mud and Take Shelter, are populated by carefully drawn characters and thoughtful performances. Loving is no different, but its assets end there. Joel Edgerton plays Richard with somnambulant restraint, and his character becomes a virtual ghost as the movie unfolds. As Mildred, Ruth Negga provides the film’s emotional center, and she’s truly remarkable—even as Nichols’ minimalist script gives her little to say, Negga’s eyes do all of the work, and they’re poetry.

But Nichols’ tale has no real urgency, and as a result, Loving feels vacant. Comedian Nick Kroll plays it straight as their ACLU-appointed lawyer (his presence is more weird than anything else), but even he’s relegated to the margins. The movie barely ventures inside a courtroom; as the case plods on, we’re told little about its developments.

This is a shame, because although it’s a period piece, Loving could have so easily been instructive about this particular, awful moment in American history. Its love story, as graceful and lived-in as it feels, should have had a sharp point to it; instead it’s flat, fallow, and far too polite. Loving eschews the deliberate power of drama, making its two protagonists passive bystanders to their contributions to history.