The Irishman – London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review

As an epic 3.5 hour crime saga, The Irishman is certainly a treat to watch. A culmination of Scorsese’s signature themes throughout the decades of his films and perhaps the finale to his gangster trilogy, of which Goodfellas and Casino are part, The Irishman is a masterpiece in directing from start to finish. Is it a tad too long? Possibly, but you are never conscious of the time as you will be riveted by The Irishman from the outset and will therefore be awaiting the meditative unfolding of the drama within the life of the protagonist Frank Sheeran played by Robert De Niro.

Scorsese had indicated during the LFF press conference that The Irishman had taken a while to develop as a project due to various work schedules; on the basis of its ensemble cast it is easy to understand why. But it was truly worth the wait! Most of the old favourites from Scorsese films are there: De Niro, Harvey Keitel and even Joe Pesci was willing to re-enter the limelight, after retirement, for this film. Al Pacino is being directed by Scorsese for the first time in The Irishman. It has star quality written all over it! Impressive newcomers such as Stephen Graham also join the Scorsese family.

So, what is The Irishman actually about? The film is based on the memoirs I Heard You Paint Houses and charts the journey of Irish-American Frank Sheeran, the Irishman in the title, as he progresses through the ranks of organised crime. From humble beginnings as a truck driver, Frank’s loyalty does not go unrecognised much to his family’s chagrin.

There has been much discussion surrounding the expensive technology used within the film, as frankly some of these actors are septuagenarians, and it does require a slight adjustment and suspension of disbelief initially when seeing their first scenes during World War II, whilst ‘de-aged’, albeit they are walking with the same elderly man’s gait. However, the decades spanning masterpiece of storytelling is so compelling that such matters are quickly forgotten. Plus, the various tracking shots following not only their movements but activity within a resident’s care home, for example, are so impressive that they lure the audience further into the world of Frank effectively.

This is Scorsese’s latest film since Silence in 2016, which I enjoyed, and the slow-burning meditative structure of The Irishman seems reminiscent of that film. Even the religious overtones are equally present but there will be more on that later. However, from the opening scenes with non-diegetic soft blues music playing in the background the tone is set for a debonair, sophisticated structure for the action that would unfold. The soundtrack is captivating and emphasises the blues music of the era, Scorsese himself had historically produced a series of films on the blues.

Dedicated Scorsese fans will also notice within such scenery from bygone eras, the images and references to venues that appeared within Casino and Goodfellas. Indeed, one iconic venue in The Irishman is utilised as a device to depict the passage of time. The level of detail in Scorsese’s direction within The Irishman is just so mesmerising to absorb! So far the film sounds quite mature but there are gratuitous violent scenes throughout. However the violence is kept to a minimum and is quite often undertaken in a graceful, sometimes comic, manner. There is the use of silencers and car bombs to create that distance between the victim and the perpetrator which seems to suggest an unwritten code amongst that organised crime world.

Even when such code is broken, there is no elaborate deliberation instead we and others are merely told that ‘it is what it is’. The concept of respect features regularly within the film and in one notable scene Al Pacino discusses acceptable times for lateness, is it 10 minutes or 15 minutes? At such point you may find yourself agreeing with either character in such a compelling scene and Pacino delivers a tremendous performance.

Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman
Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman

Indeed, the dialogue is rich, which is a Scorsese trait, with many monologues as the characters reflect over the decades. Perhaps such discourse could have been shortened but this may have resulted in a loss of the overall impact of catharsis over the film’s three acts. Plus, this may have detracted from the personal feel to The Irishman, as we are privy to the voiceover by De Niro, as Frank reflects on life via flashbacks from the confines of a nursing home.

Given that De Niro’s character Frank became a key member in a union and formed a friendship with Jimmy Hoffa, there is a degree of political focus in the film which may be reminiscent of other Scorsese films. The Irishman interweaves historical footage from John F Kennedy’s political reign to convey the sense of dismay during the political turmoil.

However, the focus in The Irishman is truly about relationships; the majority of the men in the various factions have wives and/ or a family despite their quests for one upmanship. It is compelling to watch the nature of such relationships as despite earlier Scorsese films, within this gangster genre, the men embroiled in these crimes are not subjected to admiration by all of their family members. The question of loyalty is held to a high standard amongst these men and it is tested in various degrees. De Niro’s portrayal of Frank is extremely captivating at such moments as he appears to be on the brink of tears despite maintaining a tough veneer. Even Joe Pesci provides a different performance to usual as he is quietly menacing during such moments. The acting overall is superb.

Indeed, this sense of reconciliation and accountability continues into the third act and it is here that the concept of religion takes prominence. There are more scenes featuring priests and pastors in these final moments of the film as various men are possibly seeking penance and endeavouring to atone for their sins for historical acts undertaken. Given the age of the characters in such scenes, could this be a sign of Scorsese’s reflection on his own life and career. One key reference in the film certainly provides that impression as a character states, ‘you don’t know how fast time goes, until you get there’.

In many respects The Irishman does feel as though it could be Scorsese’s swansong, although during the press conference it was revealed that there is another ongoing film project. The Irishman is truly a masterpiece and is Scorsese doing what he does best. I would certainly advise carving out some time during your day to devote to this enthralling tale, which I would recommend watching in the cinemas before its release on Netflix as such an epic film truly deserves to be seen in its full glory on the big screen.

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