On his album Tens Hymns From My American Gothic, St. Lenox sang ‘Thurgood Marshall help me out because I’ve been slowly fading away this year, Thurgood Marshall don’t let me down because I want to be inspired and mystified by the law’. It feels like maybe the eponymous hero of Roman J. Israel Esq. could have done with a little inspiration and mystification from the first African-American Supreme Court Justice as well as he doesn’t have an easy time with it. A film about an idealistic lawyer struggling with his ethics after he accepts a job at a commercially-minded law firm was never going to be an easy sell as it’s quite a dry subject to approach but the combination of Nightcrawler‘s writer/director Dan Gilroy and the finest actor of his generation in the lead role should be enough to draw a compelling narrative out of this right?
The simple is answer is either ‘maybe’ or ‘not quite’. You see, it is for the most part, a compelling film with Washington on top form, showing that he deserved his Best Actor nominations, even if the film was far from the best, as the spectrum-adjacent, anti-social but well-intending legal expert and as long as the film focusses on him and his towering performance, it remains thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking. The problem is there are other characters and indeed, plot points which struggle to provide a similar level of sustained interest, with a third act switch to paranoid thriller being a tonal shift too far that doesn’t generate the required level of tension to make such a shift worth it. Equally, Colin Farrel as Israel’s new boss is on Hollywood movie mode, being a functional but very forgettable presence, Carmen Ejogo for all her best efforts, is given an underwritten role as a fellow idealist who is inspired back into action by Israel.
But this is Denzel’s film and whenever he is at the centre of the frame or the scene, it really does click more thoroughly into place. The film is aptly named after his character as he is the film. Gilroy and his team wisely provide little in the way of extenuous showy detail to the production as to do so would be to the detriment of what is at its heart, a verbally distinct character study but one of not exact a showy or flamboyant man. That said, where the film starts off strongly with an opening where we see Roman J. drafting his own disbarment letter, the ending’s resolution is somehow a little too near and seems to let him off almost too easily.
It might seem like so far my review has leant more towards the negative and doesn’t quite befit the star rating at the top but be assured, this is three-quarters of a good film, a final quarter of a much weaker one and a central performance that is from a much better film than either of them. Yet, it all adds up to something very watchable, even if just for Denzel. I don’t think I need to say it again but I will anyway, that Denzel Washington is quite good at acting. Keep an eye on him, he might well make something of himself.
Dir: Dan Gilroy
Scr: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrel, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton
Prd: Todd Black, Jennifer Fox, Denzel Washington
DOP: Robert Elswitt
Music: James Newton Howard
Runtime: 122 minutes
Roman J. Israel Esq. is available on DVD & Digital Download now.