I was supremely confident of Gary Oldman winning the Oscar for the best actor for his role as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour. And he did win handsomely. But I hadn’t seen Denzel Washington’s act in Roman J. Israel, Esq. at that time. Now that I have seen it, I am not so sure anymore. Maybe, just maybe this was a better act. If not better, maybe it was a more affecting act. I know it’s wrong to compare one act with another but Denzel has cast a kind of a shadow on my senses with his sublime act and I can’t help but write what I might never have. These are two different films with characters as different as they could be but somehow I can’t help but feel that maybe the Oscar should have gone to this man for making a film that is totally dependent on his act endlessly watchable and affecting.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a sort of a backup lawyer for a 2 person Law firm. He has been mostly involved in preparing the cases and hasn’t had to face actual court proceedings. But that hasn’t deterred him from preparing a truckload of appeals pertaining to major amendments in laws that he believes will revitalize the flawed legal system and also bring common people some much-needed solace. He plans to bring these appeals to the court someday when he gets some able support. But with the death of his partner, his life changes drastically. Not only is he fired from his firm, he finds it excruciatingly difficult to find a new job. He is soon offered a job by George Pierce (Collin Farrell), a hotshot attorney who is also tasked with liquidating Roman’s previous firm. He joins his firm and then something happens that rips Roman apart from the inside.
Denzel Washington is present in almost every scene of this film. He is kind-of obese, he is kind-of clumsy in his movements and he is a real prick when he wants to be. He is also adamant and is nearly blinded by his own sense of righteousness. The film in so many scenes shows us just that. But he is who he is. His heart is in the right place. We can connect with him when he does what he does best. However, when that same person does something that is totally out of his character, the film throws open a barrage of opportunities which Denzel Washington milks to the last ounce.
There are scenes that are dedicated to the conflict that is brewing inside Roman and these scenes are oh! so well done that I could watch them over and over and over again. My favorite is the one that Roman shares with Maya (Carmen Ejogo) in a posh hotel where Maya goes all gaga about how Roman is an inspiration for her to be doing what she is doing. Washington looks chocked in this scene and his expressions literally bring out what is unfolding inside Roman at that very moment. This is essentially what this film is all about. In a scene almost right after that, Roman faces a similar ordeal when George Pierce, who by the way Roman would have loved to impress, says something similar to him. But Roman knows that he may not be as clean as George thinks him to be.
Dan Gilroy directed Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an insanely manipulative and sometimes brutal news hunter. I loved that film. It is one of those films that I have watched the most number of times and even in that film, the emphasis was on Jake’s portrayal of the man. The film would have amounted to nothing without his stunning act. The same is the case here but I believe Roman is a little bit more dependent on Denzel’s act as it doesn’t have the thriller element of Nightcrawler which gave the film an extra edge.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is essentially a film about 3 weeks of the protagonist’s life and how these few days change him as a person by breaking down his character to scratch and then rebuilding it. The film ends with Roman’s legacy being now carried forwards by his boss George Pierce who is shown practically using Roman’s oversized briefcase symbolic to the fact that Roman might have just been successful in doing what he might not have been able to achieve single-handedly.
This is a film that is a treasure trove of beautiful dialogues and wise words. One could just sit through this film listening to Denzel’s lectures on right and wrong and hear them change through the period of 3 weeks as he is weighed down by his own guilt. The dialogs beautifully integrate into his psyche and his thoughts as he goes through turmoil. Gilroy writes the film in a manner that not only lets Denzel Washington take over your sense but also provides you with a tight and condensed feel. Even though nothing much happens through the runtime of the film apart from one act on the part of Roman, the film somehow feels laced with drama and intrigue. That there is the masterstroke of the director.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. It’s a film about conflict and how an ideally righteous person deals or atleast tries to deal with it. It is easily one of Denzel’s best acts in years. Add to that a director who willfully drives you through 3 weeks in the man’s life in the most interesting and intriguing way possible and you have a film on hands that cannot be missed.
Rating : 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)