After losing out Best Actor at the Oscars to Casey Affleck last year, Denzel Washington returns in another Best Actor-nominated role this year in Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to his brilliant debut Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

After his long-time partner is put out of work, reclusive and benign civil rights lawyer Roman J. Israel, Esquire (Washington), having worked mostly behind the scenes on their firm’s cases until now, is thrust into the legal limelight when he is forced to step up in his place. All about “sticking up for The Man” and representing the underprivileged, Roman finds his quiet, dated morals and lifestyle askew when he takes up a job at a major law firm, under the guidance of the sharp-suited George Pierce (Colin Farrell) – a wealthy lawyer that stands against everything Roman believes in. But, all the while, our eponymous savant is brewing up a brief (one has been cooking for several years now) that could send the legal system into flux.

Washington infuses Israel with such veritable life and charm; it’s a subtle performance, especially in the physicality and the quirks of the character but the actor embodies it with such palpable conviction and craft  – from the awkward limp to the stifled gaze and bumbling stutter to the ill-fitted suit and the big brown briefcase Roman carries around with him everywhere, like it’s his duty (and it is given the weight of the legal documents inside). Washington genuinely disappears into the role and it’s utterly riveting to watch him at work, to watch such a fascinating, straight-man dealing with the complex, tricky world of law and morals – he’s old-school; the “fish out of water” here. It’s a character that, despite perhaps being too idealistic in his nature, is compelling to watch and his journey here is one worth following – a rewarding tale of the “modern hero” versus society.
Yet, for all the quirks and charisma of our leading man garnishing the story, Dan Gilroy’s latest is a mess. The film can’t decide what it wants to be and where it wants to take its characters. One moment, it’s a riveting legal drama and the next, it sort of adopts a murder-mystery vibe to it; it kind of just floats around aimlessly every so often, scattered but always still taking its protagonist in interesting ways, drags unevenly here and there and is bogged down with an overabundance of long scenes of wordy legal jargon that will perhaps reward the sharp ear, but lose a lot of others. It’s a film that has a lot of words to utilise – it’s a screenplay brimming with dialogue (sharply written too) – but one that just doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to say with them all. However, compared to something like The Cloverfield Paradox, which becomes too frenetic and convoluted for its own good, there’s something oddly offbeat and captivating about Roman J. Israel, Esq’s messiness – there’s grace in its failings. It’s a fascinating premise and comes across well enough to hold its own. Yes, it lacks the satirical bite and dark pop of Gilroy’s preceding endeavour, Nightcrawler, which, similarly to his sophomore feature, follows a character unused to the world trying to make it their own – in one way or another.

It’s a gorgeously made film too. Gilroy’s direction is slick – an impeccable combination of timing, character, and camera work to create a wholly absorbing world. The cinematography is crisp and pretty too, superbly lit and coloured for such a typically bland situation – from the plum suit in the grey of the legal firm to the golden sands of the beach. Farrell is expectedly great as Pierce, a morally ambiguous character that straddles the line of good and bad and has an affecting turn and relation with Roman by the end; Carmen Ejogo, too, brings a lot of levity and heart as the saintly civil rights activist that brings a lovable innocence to ground Washington’s argumentative nature. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is nothing ground-breaking for the courtroom genre; it’s a messy, at times unfocused, script that doesn’t quite pop the way Nightcrawler does. However, it’s a capably told wordy drama that has a story to tell, compelling characters, and some astounding performances all encased in slick, unflashy (albeit if askew) storytelling from Dan Gilroy to make for an impressive, thoroughly enjoyable character study. It's a plodding drama but one that remains a fascinating slice of intellectual and sociopolitical macabre, nonetheless. But not one you’ll remember too long after.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a plodding, scattered legal drama yet one that remains a fascinating slice of intellectual and sociopolitical macabre, nonetheless, anchored by a never-better Denzel Washington, and all encased in Dan Gilroy's slick filmmaking craft and world.

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About the Author

Awais Irfan
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.

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