The Irishman – BFI London Film Festival 2019 Review

We are in a hospital. The camera is on the move to the tune of the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Night’. Nurses, staff go about their business. A wheelchair propelled by a vaguely familiar older man cuts across the screen into a communal lounge. The camera moves past it and carries on its course. Then it does a left, entering the lounge from another angle. Finally, it catches up with the old man, Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro). He tells us about a three-day road trip with his long-time pal Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). They are off to a wedding with their wives, whom Russell won’t allow to smoke in the car. Welcome to The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese’s long-in-gestation farewell to the mob, based on Charles Brandt’s book, ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, significantly the only title card we see and set predominantly between the 1950s and the 1970s.

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In a Scorsese mob picture, there is no such thing as a straight road trip. You remember the opening of Goodfellas. There was the stop-off at Tommy De Vito’s mother’s house to pick up a knife. (‘Don’t you want to eat something?’) The Irishman plays on our memories of past Scorsese films: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and his television series Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. Heck, the gang’s all here: De Niro, Pesci, Keitel (a glimpse), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire’s Al Capone) and Ray Romano (from Vinyl). In Scorsese films, guys upset other guys. Violence erupts. Things should be put right, but they can’t.

In many ways, Sheeran lived an unremarkable life. He’s a trucker who, according to the film, adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, met Bufalino outside a café when his rig broke down. Russell helps him get back on the road. The film’s big coup de cinema is the ‘youthifification’ of Messrs De Niro and Pesci. De Niro gets to play Frank as a young soldier at Anzio, who forces two Nazi soldiers to dig their own graves and then kills them. Frank, we understand, is used to killing. He does so repeatedly without compunction.

Bufalino gives him the opportunity to impress a mob boss. Frank diverts his fresh meat deliveries to a mob-restaurant, so they arrive short. Finally, his truck is completely empty. Russell’s cousin, Bill (Ray Romano) defends him in court. The judge throws out the case. Frank expects to apologise to the judge. Instead the judge turns on the prosecution for picking on a working man.

De Niro’s mobsters have tended to be confident, flashy guys, headstrong with explosive tempers. By contrast, Frank is devoted and knows his place. He scarcely articulates ambition. Nor is he seduced by the lifestyle. The worst thing he does outside of whacking people is to get divorced. That and picking on a shopkeeper for pushing his daughter – Frank stamps on the guy’s hand.

It’s a weird experience watching a de-aged De Niro do this stuff, knowing that the actor is past his prime. I wasn’t convinced. Then again, the real Frank Sheeran didn’t convince many people either. His big claim to fame is that he played a part in the to-this-day unsolved disappearance of Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, looking so much like Ciaran Hinds, you wonder why Scorsese didn’t hire a real Irishman).

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This is the big bone of contention: isn’t Sheeran’s ‘confession’ a load of hooey? Moreover, what does Scorsese think about it? Like many questionable characters Scorsese has put on screen, from Jake La Motta to Jordan Belfort, the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, Scorsese doesn’t judge. He is interested in what the story says about human nature. Moreover, as a filmmaker, he is seduced by energy.

There are a couple of sequences that are vintage Scorsese. One, involving a watermelon, I won’t explain. Then there is the square-off between Hoffa and Tony Provenza (Stephen Graham), the gang boss who shows him disrespect by turning up late and in shorts. Their running row takes place over three scenes in which Hoffa moves from having some power over Provenza, to the other way around. Meanwhile, Sheeran is in the background attempting to act as peacemaker; he’s a side character in his own story.

The Irishman moves both quickly and slowly. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as precise as any of the work she has done for Scorsese the last forty years, but the film has a running time of almost three and a half hours. Although destined to be seen on Netflix, it absolutely holds your attention in the cinema. It also turns into a typically personal work, with Sheeran having to justify his legacy to his daughters, especially the eldest (Anna Paquin) who won’t speak to him. Scorsese has married plenty of times and has a trio of daughters, Cathy, Domenica and Francesca. You find yourself thinking, especially when Frank sees a priest, whether Scorsese has felt guilty about the time he has devoted to filmmaking as opposed to family life. The final scene, in which a door is left ajar says something about whether Scorsese will work with his long-time friends again, make another film, or something.

The Irishman opens in cinemas on 8 November and screens on Netflix from 27 November

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