The Irishman (4 stars)

The Irishman

LFF 2019: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino head up Martin Scorsese's triumphant return to the gangster film

'I Heard You Paint Houses' is the only title that appears on Martin Scorsese's elegiac epic, which recounts the true story of mob enforcer and union official Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). That euphemism for contract killing is the first thing notorious Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) ever said to Frank, and it's dramatically revealed in white type on a black screen, piece by piece, for full impact. The screenplay, written by Steven Zaillian (an Oscar-winner for Schindler's List, who worked with Scorsese on Gangs of New York), is adapted from Charles Brandt's novel. It's based on interviews he conducted with the titular Irishman towards the end of his life, and has a similarly gripping effect as it steadily builds to its shattering conclusion.

The Irishman possesses the wise-guy humour of Goodfellas but is also packed full of remorse and the sombre realisations of a man whose life led to a huge betrayal. A large chunk of American history – where the government, unions and mafia waged war, seen through the eyes of Frank and his Mafia string-puller buddy Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) – is richly realised, with the long running time skipping by.

A chunk of the estimated $159 million budget has been spent on the de-aging technology used to take the trio of actors at the story's core through the decades. It's a bit conspicuous to start with, but easy to forgive due to the mastery on display from the filmmakers (which include regular Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who shot Silence and The Wolf of Wall Street) and, as expected, all the glorious performances.

Pacino dials it up as the ice-cream-loving union man, giving impassioned speeches at lecterns, and bellowing chants of 'solidarity.' His disgust at the Kennedy clan is displayed through the wringing of hands and seething behind-the-curtain rants. It's a satisfyingly showy turn that complements the quietude of Pesci's more sophisticated work. De Niro is understated, too, as their gun for hire and is gifted some of the most powerfully poignant moments of the film – whether he's excruciatingly trying to express emotion, or glassy-eyed and numb. Ray Romano's dodgy lawyer and Stephen Graham's aggressive 'little guy' are meaty roles that the actors make memorable. And Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale add value to this legendary gathering too, as sharp-suited mob men.

The close friendships between Frank, Jimmy and Russell are appealingly handled; at times they are like affectionate couples, as they break bread in romantic restaurants or snuggle up in twin beds chattering. These are the relationships Sheeran chose to nurture, and the devastating impact of his chosen profession on his family sends waves through the film via the suspicion and contempt of his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult, Lucy Gallina as a child). It's an intriguing, if not thoroughly inspected relationship that gives Paquin very little to say.

As Scorsese reunites De Niro and Pesci in a genre that they are renowned for he slows down time and even stops it to reflect on alliances, violence and mortality. It's masterful filmmaking that sadly doesn't make room for a complicated female character like Casino's Ginger McKenna or Goodfella's Karen Hill. Still, it distils the crucial elements of the book and interrogates the gangster flick with a wistful eye.

Screened on Sun 13 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. Selected release from Fri 8 Nov and on Netflix from Wed 27 Nov.

The Irishman

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 3h 30min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Martin Scorsese
  • Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin
  • UK release: 8 November 2019

The story of mob enforcer and union official Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and his relationship with Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and Mafia string-puller Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The de-aging technology is easy to forgive thanks to the masterly filmmaking, and although there’s no room for a complex female character…

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