What it's about:
Roman J Israel, Esq. is a brilliant civil-rights lawyer but, as someone not blessed with the greatest social skills, his expertise is behind the scenes work, helping his partner prepare the very best defence for his clients. When his partner has a heart attack, however, Roman is forced to come to the fore and face not only the realities of a failing law practice but who he really is as a person, as a lawyer and as a once-fierce but now potentially obsolete fighter for human rights.
What we thought:
A brilliant, searing character study, wrapped in a fairly mundane and occasionally dull law-procedural plot, Roman J Israel, Esq. is as awkward and uncertain of itself as its protagonist. It's a film that skirts so close to greatness, so often, that it's also frustrating in a way that most truly bad films seldom are – and yet, there's so much that is genuinely good about it that it's a hard film to not at least cautiously recommend.
The film's greatest weaknesses clearly all lie in a plot that just isn't all that interesting; that feels both far less original and engaging than the person at the centre of it. It's ploddingly paced and when it kicks into high gear in the final third, it's done so in such an incongruous way to the rest of the film that rather than feeling like a well-earned climax, it has the faint whiff of a desperate attempt to eject some much-needed life in a story that clearly just wasn't working.
Get past the plot and the basic story mechanics, though, and you're left with a film with fascinating, multi-layered characters and plenty of thematic complexity and relevance. Denzel Washington, as the titular Roman, takes a character that at first seems to be little more than a collection of ticks and ill-fitting clothes and brings out layer after layer of a deeply flawed man, one who has trouble connecting with nearly anyone around him but who has spent much of his life fighting for the underdog, sacrificing success and – at least according to him – a family life for his many causes.
When the safety net of his partner falls away, though, all of his past decisions come back to haunt him as he realises that all of his years fighting for civil rights has resulted in a new generation of social crusaders who exist purely because of his hard work but who nonetheless see him as nothing more than an ageing dinosaur, and a decidedly “unwoke” one at that. As he joins forces with Colin Farrell's George Pierce, a lawyer of the kind that he has spent his whole professional career despising, he starts to get a whiff of the life that passed him by; one that he is only one unethical decision away from having himself.
It's compelling stuff about identity, ageing, generation gaps, compromised beliefs and facing up to one's worth in the world and it's brought to life by Washington on the very top of his considerable form, while Farrell brings enough complexity and shades of grey to his apparently materialistic, unscrupulous lawyer that there is almost as interesting a film to be made about him. It's also a fascinating reflection of the changing face of justice where even the truest “social justice warrior” who fought against genuine corruption, injustice and racism in the tumultuous '60s and '70s is derided by a younger generation who wear their political correctness and SJW credentials like fashion accessories.
Sadly, these and other engrossing ideas can't ever really escape a film that constantly fails to follow its better angels; foregoing organic character study for bland law-procedural drama before bottling out completely and introducing a thriller element with a third-act twist that is contrived as it is lazy.
Writer/ director Dan Gilroy previously gave us the quite terrific and decidedly uncompromising Nightcrawler, so it's disappointing to see so little of that film's gutsiness transfer over to a film that resolutely refuses to live up to its significant potential, let alone to its wonderfully realised lead character.