In Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Denzel Washington gets transformed — and what a treat it is to see this great actor, after almost 40 years in movies, give a performance that feels both utterly unexpected and completely true. 3 out of 4 stars

Share story

In “Nightcrawler,” two years ago, writer/director Dan Gilroy showed us a very different side of Jake Gyllenhaal. Playing a bottom-feeding freelance videographer, Gyllenhaal gave a weird, mesmerizing performance; a hollow, feral shadow of his usual presence. Now, in Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” it’s Denzel Washington who gets transformed — and what a treat it is to see this great actor, after almost 40 years in movies, give a performance that feels both utterly unexpected and completely true.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” isn’t as good as the performance at its center, but perhaps that’s inevitable. Washington plays the title role, a brilliant, savant-like attorney who’s spent his entire career in the backroom of a legendary civil-rights lawyer’s one-man firm, doing research and writing briefs and staying out of the spotlight. A quiet, socially awkward man, he lives a life that seems unchanged since his career began in the 1970s: his apartment, his clothes, his hair, his foam headphones, the row of Jif peanut- butter jars on his shelf. But in the movie’s opening scenes, his employer suffers a serious heart attack, and Roman needs to step out of that backroom and practice the principles that he’s been writing about for all these years.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.,’ with Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Tony Plana, Amari Cheatom. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. 122 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language and some violence. Several theaters.

You watch this movie wishing that Carmen Ejogo (best known for “Selma,” and possessed of a face the camera adores) had more to do. Likewise Colin Farrell, all pocket square’d and Trump-son-hair’d as a slick attorney who takes Roman on, seems underused; his character just hovers on the periphery of the story, never quite jumping in. But Washington, in every scene, creates an indelible character from an army of nuances: Roman can’t look at clients in the eye. He talks in a quiet stream of not-quite-enunciated words. Hanging up a phone, he waves his hands dismissively, as if conducting an orchestra of flies. He’s always scratching his face, adjusting his glasses, smoothing his hair, taking out his handkerchief; he can’t, in the company of others, find calm.

We know things won’t go well for Roman — the film’s opening scene clearly tells us as much — so it’s all the more poignant when, for a brief period mid-film, Washington lets us see him relax and smile. And the title he so proudly uses seems, suddenly, to fit him. Esquire is, he brusquely tells someone, “a title of dignity, slightly above gentleman, below knight.”