Magazine article Screen International

'Roman J. Israel, Esq': Toronto Review

Magazine article Screen International

'Roman J. Israel, Esq': Toronto Review

Article excerpt

Denzel Washington stars in director Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to ‘Nightcrawler’

Dir/scr. Dan Gilroy. US. 2017. 129mins

Denzel Washington gives a terrifically off-kilter performance in Roman J. Israel, Esq., a fascinating and flawed character study that frustratingly can’t meld all its ambitions into a coherent and satisfying whole. Writer-director Dan Gilroy presents the story of a profoundly peculiar attorney who responds to an unexpected moral crisis in a manner which is as unpredictable as anything else in this overlong, thoughtful film. As a result, Roman keeps us engaged, even charmed, by its scrappy spirit - even as it goes off the rails.

The audience may not be sure what to make of Roman, but Washington’s commanding performance leaves no doubt that the Oscar-winning actor understands him completely

Premiering in Toronto, this Sony release goes out in the US on November 3, no doubt hoping for awards consideration. With a cast that also includes Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo, Roman will cater to adult audiences, but mixed reviews and uneven execution could limit the film’s commercial prospects and word-of-mouth.

Gilroy, who previously made the Oscar-nominated Nightcrawler, introduces us to another idiosyncratic individual - albeit, one far less dangerous. Roman Israel (Washington) is a Los Angeles lawyer and long-time civil rights activist who is forced to find a new firm after his current company is dissolved. He meets George (Farrell), who heads a powerful criminal defence firm which hires him, believing that his idealism and activism can help attract a different, less affluent clientele.

What’s especially rewarding about Roman is that we’re never quite able to get a lock on its main character. Combative, passionate and socially awkward, Roman simply doesn’t act like the people around him, and although he’s extremely bright, it’s unclear if he has emotional issues, is a savant or is simply extremely odd.

The audience may not be sure what to make of Roman, but Washington’s commanding performance leaves no doubt that the Oscar-winning actor understands him completely. There’s an internal logic to this lawyer’s uncomfortable, prickly behaviour, and Washington conveys a vulnerability that’s rare for him, giving us a portrait of a proud, anxious man who has advocated for the marginalised for so long that he views every situation as a potential battle. …

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