VOD film review: Roman J Israel, Esq
James R | On 06, May 2020
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
Watch Roman J Israel, Esq online in the UK: All 4 / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Denzel Washington is one of the great actors of his generation. Just in case you’d somehow forgotten that, this year saw him nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor – his eighth nomination, with two wins – and yet Roman J Israel, Esq remains a curiously forgotten film, despite being an Academy Award contender. But this compelling drama shouldn’t be overlooked.
Washington plays the eponymous attorney, a social justice veteran with a withdrawn manner and a brain that’s capable of remembering every case he’s ever handled. He stays in the backroom considering legal precedents and advising his partner, William Jackson, who’s the face of their firm. But when William suffers a heart attack, Roman is shoved into the spotlight, and his blinking but dedicated do-gooder is soon drowning in the flood of legal and moral dilemmas.
Enter George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of William, who was inspired by his old teacher but has all the commercial savvy that Roman lacks. What follows is, in many ways, a two-hander between Washington and Farrell, both of whom are fantastic and understated in their respective roles: Washington as a timid, uncertain and yet fiercely righteous figure who’s more than the sum of his mannerisms, Farrell as a deceptively nuanced success story with a heart that can’t be entirely eclipsed by his head.
Their dynamic recalls, in many ways, the gripping legal wranglings of Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. Dan Gilroy’s counterpart lacks the cynical streak that would make it a neo-noir thriller, but that also gives the movie a human touch. As Roman finds himself weighing up whether to claim something for himself for once, he, like George, is incapable of not seeing the big picture, and can’t shake the desire to shake up the justice system itself, one that is unfairly prejudiced against people of colour.
That leads to some inevitably slow and wordy conversations, but the actors more than sell their arguments, while Carmen Ejogo as activist Maya brings out the humour and warmth in a character study that might otherwise be too dry or detached. The result lacks a bold bite, but there’s meat beneath its soft, sentimental surface that’s worth sinking your teeth into.
Roman J Israel, Esq is available on All 4 until 25th October 2020.