Dan Gilroy’s second offering from the director’s chair is Roman J. Israel, Esq. and it opens with the eponymous protagonist outlining a lawsuit he’s taking out – against himself. It’s a rather bold opening sequence, for it’s wordy and full of legal jargon that will go over the head of the majority of viewers. And while this does seem somewhat concerning in regards to the rest of the picture, such is the strength in the narrative and characters within it, that it simply doesn’t matter. Much goes over our head, but little evades our heart.

With this first scene also comes a foreboding sense, for we gather that things do not turn out well for Roman, played here by the reliable Denzel Washington. At the start of play Roman is an idealistic defence attorney who works tirelessly behind the scenes for his partner, standing up for the disenfranchised, remaining faithful to their morals, irrespective of the financial reward. Such an approach proves to be detrimental, if inspiring, when Roman’s partner suffers from a heart attack, and the lack of profits forces his family to close the firm – leaving Roman, stubbornly stuck in his ways, unemployed.

But the high-flying George Pierce (Colin Farrell) becomes enraptured by Roman’s quirky sensibilities and his diligence, and so offers him a job. Though apprehensive at first, the strapped for cash attorney decides to take the role – though in this new environment there is always the danger of him compromising on his moral compass, which had served him so well up until now, even alluring Maya (Carmen Ejogo). But the times are changing, and Roman is starting to change with it, which sets off a tumultuous series of events that finds the affable eccentric in danger.

With a somewhat sprawling opening act, there’s no one defining case for the viewer to invest in and follow – and while at the time it seems an odd approach, it’s imperative character building, for our attachment to Roman is one of the film’s most essential elements. In fact, when the significant moment arises which lands the protagonist in a lot of trouble, it just sort of happens, without any warning, and we swiftly move on, as though nothing happened. This works well for it’s representative of how Roman acted; without thinking. He just sort of did it, and the film shadows this notion. What transpires is a compelling final act too, with Roman’s paranoia so well judged, and it’s here it becomes clear we’re dealing with the same filmmaker behind the excellent Nightcrawler.

The film survives off the back of a remarkable lead display by Washington, who brings such a muted stillness to the role at hand, and so much nuance. It’s not an easy character to play either, as across the course of the film Roman changes significantly, and yet in such a subtle manner. Washington has this ability to just melt into the character he is playing, and unlike so many high profile actors of a similar calibre, you always forget it’s him. It’s thanks to Washington too that we care so much for Roman – and this is imperative in the film working. For we need to be on his side before the flaws become apparent, because he makes some bad decisions, make no mistake about it – but we’re already behind him.

Also thanks to Roman’s excellent taste in music (a very big part of his life) it means the soundtrack follows suit, with tracks by Marvin Gaye and The Spinners standing out – the latter playing over the closing credits. But it’s at this point we do feel a little underwhelmed, as while a really engaging production with a collection of impressive performances, the finale is a little unsatisfying, perhaps just giving us a little too much – and Roman would be the first to admit that less can often be so much more.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is released in cinemas across the UK on February 2nd.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
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