UK Release Date: 2nd February 2018
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amari Cheatom, DeRon Horton, Amanda Warren
Synopsis: A morally focused lawyer finds his life changed forever when he makes a questionable decision, with potentially huge ramifications for his career and the rest of his life.
It’s always an eyebrow-raiser when a movie nabs a solitary Oscar nomination, without even being close in the other categories. This year, that film is Roman J. Israel, Esq., which has had a limited release in UK cinemas, driven almost entirely by the fact that star Denzel Washington has managed to get hold of a spot on the packed shortlist for Best Actor. As is to be expected given the awards season state of affairs, Washington’s performance is much better than the movie surrounding it, though that’s no bad thing given just how good he is, affirming his status as one of the best actors on the planet.
Washington plays the title lawyer, who is the more morally righteous half of a partnership, doing the backroom work while his colleague heads to court. When his partner has a heart attack, Roman must take to the court room, where his smart mouth and strong sense of the way things should work causes him problems. He soon ends up working under slimy, sharp-suited attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), but finds an outlet for his more socially conscious side in the shape of young activist Maya (Carmen Ejogo), just as a poor call in a moral conundrum risks his career.
The entire film pivots around the central performance, which is a complex and unusual one. Roman is driven by his morals and his viewpoint that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated fairly, as well as a distaste for the plea bargain system that encourages many defendants to waive the right to a trial. Despite his honourable opinions, he is an abrasive and difficult person, who puffs up with pride whenever he is threatened and has no ability to silence his mouth when a sharp comment rises to the surface. Washington is asked to shoulder real difficulty and nuance as the film progresses and he does a very strong job.
Unfortunately, the film does not match his work. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, whose last project as director was the tremendous thriller Nightcrawler. He helms the movie as if it’s a biopic, with every frame radiating the tone, visual style and conventions of a historical true story. The fact the film is not biographical and completely rooted in fiction, but is steeped in the conventions of the biopic, creates an odd feel that permeates the entire story.
It doesn’t help that the rest of the characters in the film are given relatively short shrift. Colin Farrell is decent as a slimy, money-driven lawyer, but there’s none of the bravery he has showcased in his recent work, including for Yorgos Lanthimos. Carmen Ejogo, meanwhile, is really solid, but her role is entirely underused and she’s never given much of an opportunity to put any meat on the character’s bones.
This is Washington’s movie, though, and for the most part, he is able to shoulder the burden of the unusual tone, the rather uneven plot and the incredibly underwritten supporting roles. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not the sort of film that deserves to win awards and it feels as if it would be far more at home as a television miniseries. With that said, the work of Washington elevates the movie shoulder high to the extent that it becomes a very watchable legal drama from a solid pair of directorial hands.
Pop or Poop?
It’s one for the Oscar completists and big Denzel fans only, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a competent legal drama with some potentially interesting moral issues at its heart. However, it struggles with an undercooked script and a narrative that is slightly too big for its canvas, particularly given the lack of colourful supporting characters and a tone lifted from the conventions of an entirely different genre.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.