Roman J. Israel, Esq.

 

starstarhalf

 


A legal drama set in Los Angeles that could have played much better.

 
Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell

 

The titular figure in this new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy is a lawyer working in L. A. It is this role that has just earned Denzel Washington, also a co-producer of this film, an Oscar nomination. But, if that sounds encouraging, this is a film with a checkered history including the making of cuts lasting some 12 minutes together with other changes following an unenthusiastic response at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Such responses can befall quality work, but what we have here suggests that the Toronto audience were justified in taking the view that they did. That’s surprising given Gilroy’s success with Nightcrawler in 2014 since it is certainly he who has to shoulder the blame here.

 

This new piece begins with a rather melodramatic flourish as Israel types out indictment papers against himself suggesting that he should be disbarred from practising. Wondering what has brought this about, we go back three weeks to the day when his partner suffers a heart attack and Israel, usually a key figure behind the scenes, has to take over in court. His concern for justice and his commitment to civil rights suggest that, whatever lies ahead, he will be our hero. However, he quickly shows ill-judgment and, working now for a sleek criminal lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), he appears to have suddenly become so disgusted by the law's failures that he opts to act illegally for his own advantage. All of this in a remarkably short space of time.

 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. might have been a compelling portrait of a good man who loses his way, be it temporarily or permanently. But, despite good work from Washington (who certainly sinks himself into his role), from Farrell and from Carmen Ejogo in the peripheral role of an activist who admires what Israel has stood for, there is nothing sure-footed about the narrative. The drama lacks urgency, occasional lighter touches feel uncertain and Israel’s changing behaviour never comes into focus sufficiently for us to feel that we really understand him. Indeed, as the plot develops it takes a script contrivance to lead us into the last half-hour and then to raise the question of whether or not, improbable as it seems, Israel is turning into George Pierce at the very same time that a change of outlook suggests that George may be taking on the other man’s original beliefs. It’s a minor yet significant sign of the uncertainty of tone that after the halfway mark the story plays out against a number of songs on the soundtrack, although even that switch in style doesn’t prevent a touch of pretentiousness in the dialogue emerging as the foreseeable climax approaches. The story told here is in itself one with potential, but it needed a major rewrite if this possibility was to be realised.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Linda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom.

 

Dir Dan Gilroy, Pro Jennifer Fox, Todd Black and Denzel Washington, Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Ph Robert Elswit, Pro Des Kevin Kavanaugh, Ed John Gilroy, Music James Newton Howard, Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.

 

Macro Media/Topic Studios/Cross Creek Pictures/Bron Creative/The Culture China/Image Nation Abu Dhabi Content Fund/Escape Artists-Sony Pictures.
122 mins. USA/Canada/People's Republic of China/Arab Emirates. 2017. Rel: 2 February 2018. Cert. 12A.