AS is clear from his 1950s period dramas Far From Heaven and Carol, director Todd Haynes is a fan of sumptuous detail. His impeccable sense of style was similarly evident as he transformed actors including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger into versions of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

How would he cope, then, with a legal drama that begins in the 1970s, the decade with a record of crimes against good taste as long as a tailored arm?

With aplomb, as it turns out. While he does not fare quite as well in keeping taut what is a long, winding – and true – story, there are compensations, chief among them Mark Ruffalo’s performance in the lead.

Ruffalo plays Rob Bilott, a West Virginian from a humble background who is now working in a big city law firm representing blue chip clients.

Back home in West Virginia, Bilott’s grandmother sends a couple of neighbours his way. There have been strange goings on in the area, including animals being born deformed or dying. The farmers suspect contaminated water and ask Bilott to take the case.

Recently made a partner, and with a wife (Anne Hathaway) and new baby at home, Bilott is reluctant to become involved. The firm’s chief partner (Tim Robbins), wary of what the other clients will think, is even warier. But it turns out the farm in question was where Bilott spent his summers as a child, and, anyway, it is his beloved grandmother asking for a favour.

So begins a commitment that will last for many years as the case grinds on and more people become parties to the lawsuit. Bilott is familiar with the stalling tactics of big firms and their deep pockets, he has practised them himself, but now he is the little guy being put through the mill.

The screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan is based on The New York Times magazine article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich. While it does its best to keep the action moving along, including having the odd thriller element here and there, time passes slowly as one year melts into the next.

Hathaway and Robbins do not get much of a look-in, save for one big speech for him and two for her, but the moments feel rather forced.

What raises the picture above a by-the-numbers legal procedural is Haynes’s styling and Ruffalo’s performance. Turns out Mr Haynes can turn out symphonies of grungy beiges and greens as well as he does the more glamorous stuff. As for Ruffalo, that crumpled demeanour of his is perfect for this Willy Loman meets Erin Brockovich part.