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Monday, April 09, 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Of all of Denzel Washington's eight Oscar-nominated performances, the one he gives in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the most different. Usually he plays someone dominant and forceful, a man who doesn't take what he's given lying down and reacts with vehemence. But Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a meek man, at least on the surface, a man who is content to stay behind the scenes until he's forced in front.

The film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is about a lawyer but it is not a courtroom drama. Instead it's a character study. Israel is a man of about sixty who for years has done the workload for a criminal defense attorney. When that man dies, Israel is left adrift. He takes a job with a flashy lawyer (Colin Farrell) but commits a breach of ethics that he must come to terms with.

Washington plays Israel as a man with certain impairments. He is clearly on the autism spectrum (he has memorized the California criminal code but has trouble dealing with people). He is also stuck in the days of black power, when lawyers could be activists. A key scene has him speaking in front of young activists, but they don't connect with him.

I mostly liked the film, though I found it to be somewhat aimless, as it moves from scene to scene without a direct line. A relationship with a young activist, Carmen Ejogo, seems wrong and inauthentic. The makers of the film say it was written for Washington and without him there could be no film. They just might be right about that.

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