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Roman J Israel Esq - DVD Review

Roman J Israel Esq

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DENZEL Washington turns in yet another top notch performance in Dan Gilroy’s quirky but gripping legal drama Roman J Israel, Esq.

The actor was Oscar nominated for his portrayal of the dishevelled lawyer of the film’s title, whose reclusive existence is shaken up by the sudden death of his law firm partner, thereby placing him on a path that will come to question everything he has held dear.

For Washington, Israel is a far cry from the type of role that he more commonly inhabits – and that’s what makes him so fascinating. There’s very little charisma, no chance to grandstand or showboat. The muscular presence he usually brings to his roles, whether physical or vocal, is absent.

Rather, Israel is a quiet man… someone who has preferred to exist in the shadows, pulling the strings so to speak. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind. And he is a fierce advocate for human rights, particularly African-Americans who have long been oppressed by America’s wayward legal system.

But he’s also obsessively compulsive and borderline autistic. He’s socially awkward and a man living very much in the past. Modern life and modern attitudes are things he finds difficult to adjust to.

So, when forced to take a job with a ruthless law firm run by Colin Farrell’s hotshot attorney George Pierce, Israel finds himself in all kinds of uncomfortable new positions. Eventually, this will leave him morally and ethically compromised, and forced – by his own conscience – to take a law suit out against himself.

Indeed, this is how Gilroy’s film opens, with Israel drafting his suit. It then jumps back in time to inform the audience how Israel reached this point.

And while the ensuing film may be a little too wordy and slow paced to suit all tastes, seldom doing what is expected of a law drama, it is nevertheless an endlessly fascinating and utterly gripping character study anchored by the power of Washington’s transformative performance.

Gilroy has already proven he has a knack for creating fascinating lead characters, as evidenced by Jake Gyllenhaal’s work in his directorial debut Nightcrawler. And here, he allows Washington plenty of room to create another.

But while Nightcrawler got nastier the longer it lasted, and pacier too, Roman J Israel opts for a more sedate approach – the darkness inherent in its themes giving way to a last act that manages to be both tragic and hopeful. There is more heart, here, which may divide some opinions.

It’s also to the film’s credit that it doesn’t always do what’s expected. Whenever a courtroom scene seems to beckon, the film changes direction and sets up new possibilities. Israel’s motivations aren’t always obvious, either, as if to illustrate the uncertainty and confusion of his state of mind. It lends the film an unpredictability that – again – may frustrate some; but should delight those that like to be challenged and surprised.

Washington, to his credit, underplays Israel’s social quirks, while leaving you in no doubt as to how intelligent he can be. He’s awkward but likeable, even when making bad decisions. And he’s a fascinating onion to peel. Through his eyes we see how activism has changed, in line with attitudes, and how easy it can be to feel out of time and place. Gilroy’s intelligent script offers plenty to think about.

There’s equally notable work from Farrell, suitably conflicted by Israel’s presence, and Carmen Ejogo, as a hard working civil rights lawyer who finds herself reluctantly inspired by Israel’s legacy.

If Gilroy’s film ultimately lacks the boldness to really issue a damning indictment of America’s legal system and its social disparities, preferring to pose questions rather than answering them or offering too firm an opinion, then that’s a minor criticism. The film still has plenty to say.

It’s an astute piece of work that is still capable of opening a debate, while simultaneously providing another terrific platform for Washington to flex those sizeable acting pecs. And seeing that in itself is an opportunity not to be missed for any fans of the actor.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 1hr 59mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: June 11, 2018