This strange film arrived in the UK over two months after its North American release. Between its Toronto festival appearance and its release, writer-director Dan Gilroy cut up to 15 minutes off its running time and ‘re-configured it’ – not usually a good sign (quote from this interview). It appears in the UK now, I suspect, mainly because Denzel Washington has been Oscar-nominated as the titular character. Although it’s a Sony/Columbia release, it’s actually the product of several small production companies with additional funding from ‘Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund’. There must be a story behind this. I’m clearly at a disadvantage here in not having seen Nightcrawler (2014), Gilroy’s earlier writer-director outing focusing on crime journalism. Gilroy suggests that Roman starts as the opposite of the lead character in Nightcrawler in terms of having a ‘moral compass’. I’m thinking that perhaps Denzel’s star performance and the many cultural references to African-American activism and problems with the law are not meant to be as central to the narrative as I want them to be.
The film’s reception has been very mixed. I went to the first local screening and I was the only person in the auditorium for what turned out to be a subtitled screening for ‘hard of hearing’ audiences – something I hadn’t picked up from the listings. I did wonder if it was simply an accident. Since I often struggle to distinguish the ‘realist’ dialogue of modern Hollywood, this was fine with me.
The story (as distinct from the film narrative which I won’t spoil) begins when Roman J. Israel arrives at his LA law office to discover that his ‘partner’ (I was never clear about the legal arrangement) has had a heart attack and been taken to hospital. Roman is the backroom legal wizard who never goes near an actual public court and when he finds himself attempting to deal with the day’s courtroom business we immediately discover why. His partner’s family decide to bring in a family acquaintance, hotshot city lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to wind up the current business and close the company which has been losing money for many years. Roman is taken aback and fears himself to be redundant but George later re-appears with an offer. In the meantime, Roman visits a ‘Civil Rights legal support group’ and tries to offer his services. It was this sequence in the trailer that first attracted me to the film. I won’t say any more about the plot as such.
I had assumed that this was a film with a strong interest in African-American culture and specifically in the problems affecting black youth in the Los Angeles district. In a way it is. Roman seems to still be living in the 1970s/80s. He sports an Afro, dresses in wide-lapelled, colourful but ill-fitting suits, listens to 70s soul and jazz, doesn’t drive (in LA!) and lives in an old apartment block surrounded by constant re-building. Roman presents as a man literally adrift from the modern world and still wrapped up in a world where researching and documenting the institutionalised racism of the US legal system is a very important part of activism. Contemporary gender politics is just one of the developments that have passed Roman by. Denzel goes the full hog on his appearance, apparently removing cosmetic work on his teeth and, I assume, wearing prosthetic jowls and extra padding on his torso.
What kind of story development did Gilroy have in mind? Many reviewers have described Roman as autistic, possibly with Asperger’s. We are back in the same territory as Newton (India 2017), though the two titular characters are quite different. The clues to Roman’s autism aren’t totally convincing – and anyway, it has been argued that many people are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. It could simply be that after so many years working in the office, Roman is overwhelmed by being confronted with real live defendants. Because of his background in civil rights and as he terms it ‘revolutionary action’, there was a moment when I thought Roman was like Jeremy Corbyn – suddenly faced with the need to be pragmatic but still trying to hang on to the deep political commitment of ‘the struggle’. Corbyn negotiated the change of context and the need to change his own presentation. Roman eventually reacts in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I’m still wondering if the film is a satire on the US legal system or possibly of professional middle-aged African-American men. The last third of the film is very odd and I can understand why critics take against the development of some familiar genre tropes. I’m not sure what to make of it. Though the films are very different, there are some elements here that reminded me of Spike Lee’s magnificent but critically divisive Bamboozled (US 2000).
As well as Colin Farrell as George there is one other significant character, Maya, at the civil rights community legal centre. She’s played by Carmen Ejogo who I have now learned is a Brit and who previously appeared as the wife of Martin Luther King in Selma (2014). Again, I was not expecting her role in the story.
I think part of my problem with the film is that while US and English (as distinct from Scottish) legal systems have the same basis in English Common Law, the contemporary practise of law is different. I didn’t totally understand the importance of some procedures. I’ve read comments that the representation of US law practices in the film is not accurate but I don’t think that matters since it is the impact on Roman and his life that is the focus. The film looks very good (thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit) and I was intrigued by the new transit system which takes Roman to Santa Monica. The film also sounds good thanks to Roman’s choice of tracks to play on his headphones. I suspect that Roman J. Israel Esq. might flop in the UK, but who knows? I’d like to be able to read a diverse range of UK reviews. Most of Denzel Washington’s performances are worth catching and his Roman is one of the more intriguing ones.