It’s taken me a long time to get around to watching Roman J Israel Esq. and it really shouldn’t have. It came out at the beginning of 2018, courting Oscar glory (gleaning a nomination for Denzel Washington in the title role). It was also written and directed by the brilliant Dan Gilroy, whose previous film Nightcrawler ranks in my all-time top films list.
You would think, then, that Roman J Israel would have my bum in a seat on day one. But something felt a little bit off. I remember first watching the trailer and thinking how amazing (as ever) Denzel looked in the role, but how the story seemed to be made of disparate elements and appeared somewhat messy.
The first reviews which emerged seemed to clarify this concern: “The film isn’t quite sure what it is doing” said The Guardian’s Simran Hans, and echoing this, Simon Braund in Empire Magazine said “The trouble is, it comes across as no more comfortable in its skin than does its central character. Every time it veers into straight-up legal thriller, or lightens the mood with a mid-point makeover sequence, it quickly reverts to dialogue-heavy default mode. It’s constantly on the brink of saying something profound about the tenuous relationship between justice and the law but just can’t get the words out.”
These sentiments concerned me, and given the massive amount of other items on my to-watch list at the time, I opted to pass and wait for a home release. Having finally seen the film I can only concur with my fellow reviewers, but would add that to some extent none of that matters, as once you appoint a star of Washington’s calibre, he can do so much heavy lifting that you believe the central character is all that matters.
So yeah, for those of you looking for a plot summary, Roman J Israel Esq. charts a period in the life of an attorney so entrenched in his principles, so equipped with scruples that he fears actually stepping into a courtroom. He is a man of detail, with a savant-like memory for legal precedent and who could, if he were willing, bring the whole justice system to its knees.
But that’s not what he wants, not overtly anyway. What he wants is for justice to prevail, and for people to do what is right. Yet this life of being just and committed to a cause has left him isolated, living in a tiny apartment and seemingly shunned by the world.
This is where the plot becomes fuzzy. There’s a sub-plot about Washington remembering his civil rights activist days after meeting a strong black woman who runs a local outreach group, then there’s the part where he (inevitably) has to go into a courtroom and face his fears, then there’s a section with him almost selling out to a corporate firm, then there’s him being treated unfairly by police whilst helping a dying man.
Yeah it’s true that many films have multiple plot strands and are still wholly successful. But in Roman J Israel Esq. it seems that each plot gives the film a new theme to explore, or something to say which is at odds with what it was saying just moments before. On one hand it is about the idea of justice being unjust, then it is about how any man can make a real difference, then suddenly it is about how nobody can make a difference no matter how hard they try.
It’s not that this becomes massively frustrating, as at all times the film is refocused by its central performance. But it just kind of makes staying engaged with the larger elements a chore, and at times it pulls the audience out of its world altogether.
Emphatically yes. This is the kind of film whose towering lead performance makes all other faults fall by the wayside. Though you may struggle to discern exactly what Gilroy and the film are trying to say overall, you will be compelled by the magnetism of Washington’s character.
He is complex, he has layers, he is human, but he is human in a way few of us will ever experience. His life is what all our lives might look like if we never turned the other cheek, and if we attacked every meaningful task with such diligence and care that the outcome it resulted in could never be questioned as something that would have stood a better chance with a little more effort.
Washington shows us all of this with subtlety of reaction and with a physicality unlike anything he has shown before. His Roman moves with a nobility born out of being too modest; too humble. He carries himself with a frail kind of pride, one that tries to keep itself secret in case it might get noticed. His language is refined and learned, dispensing enough ten dollar words to make a dictionary salesman envious, yet he hasn’t the intensity to deliver it with the power of an orator who would kill for such a vocabulary, and instead remains somewhat muted. You feel that he had it in him to be a powerful leader, but that he couldn’t allow himself to be placed in that spotlight, and therefore he becomes, whilst admirable, steeped in tragedy.
As with Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, the lead character is what makes Roman J Israel Esq. so unique and special. It’s just a shame the rest of the film didn’t quite match up. But watch it!!!