Denzel Washington is on fine form as the title character in Roman J. Israel Esq, the second feature by writer-director Dan Gilroy. Picking up his sixth Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his work, Washington is right at the centre of this legal drama about a tireless activist attorney who goes through his own moral Gift Of The Magi, discovering that he has inspired change at the precise moment that he sells out his own values.
For the past 36 years, Roman has worked at a small defence firm, covering the invaluable backroom work while his respected senior partner, William H. Jackson faces judges and represents clients. When William has a serious heart attack, his firm is dissolved and Roman is offered work by a much larger firm run by his partner’s former student, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Forced to find new employment, Roman reluctantly accepts, but the increased responsibility eventually leads to a momentary ethical lapse and a devastating personal upheaval.
At this time of year, you might expect that this is one of those films which only really exists as a vehicle for an awards worthy performance, but there’s a little more to it than that. This isn’t the shot across the bow that Gilroy’s previous film Nightcrawler was, in part because that film was a vehicle better suited to Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic newshound Louis Bloom.
In contrast to Nightcrawler, this moves forward in fits and starts, with an inconsistent tone and some heavy-handed plot twists along the way. Washington’s turn serves to ground the film, which is just as well, because it’s a tiny bit all over the place.
Roman isn’t played up as an eccentric, but his passion for justice coupled with difficulty in expressing himself means that he rubs several characters the wrong way in the course of his work. To his peers, he’s seen as inflexible and a self-imposed failure (a sentiment he repeats himself at his lowest ebb) and to the younger generation of activists, he’s seen as an entitled dinosaur, who is dismissive their efforts in comparison to his own achievements and accolades, and he doesn’t really have anywhere to go.
In fact, as the film opens, before we’re properly introduced to Roman, we learn that he’s filing to disbar himself. The story covers the three weeks leading up to his decision, and the plotting within that timeframe, while not fully a Breaking Bad style transition as another, broader film might have it, is a big part of why the film doesn’t run as smoothly as it could. We’re fully with him near the end when he says he can’t believe it’s only been three Mondays, given all the comic and tragic bits, and even the one startlingly out-of-place car chase sequence, that have transpired.
But it’s Washington’s worthy performance, full of comic indignation and ever-present pathos, that keeps you watching. Farrell is interesting as the jaded hotshot who comes to reconsider his own record, and Carmen Ejogo is lovely as Maya, a fellow advocate who is inspired by Roman’s career rather than put off by his manner, but neither of them are especially well served by the script. Both of them have to come around quite quickly in the second hour. Just having Maya say that she can’t explain what attracts her to Roman is no substitute for making us believe that she would be.
To credit Gilroy’s script where it’s due though, Roman J. Israel Esq. takes big swings rather than getting mired in legal stodginess. It takes so much time setting up its central conflict that it feels like a jarring tonal change when it arrives, but as a morality play, it’s still thought-provoking and engaging on another level to Washington’s terrific performance.
Roman J. Israel Esq. is in UK cinemas now.