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  • The Irishman ⋆⋆⋆⋆


The Irishman ⋆⋆⋆⋆

OUT NOW! A curtain call that sees Scorsese explore a different facet of the mafia genre he played a big part in defining.

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Photo courtesy of Netflix. Catch The Irishman in Berlin cinemas now!

The Irishman has been talked about for years, a magnum opus that would reunite the creative forces of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci with director Martin Scorsese. And finally, here it is. Sort of. A handful of cinemas are releasing the three-and-a-half-hour crime epic before it gets dumped in the Netflix graveyard of films at the end of the month… Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, the memoirs of hitman Frank Sheeran, the film – somewhat bizarrely – opens with the book’s (far superior) title, not ‘The Irishman’. It follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recalls his life working for the Bufalino family. From his beginnings with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), it’s a decade-spanning recollection that doubles up as a rich chronicle of American history through his rise into the ranks of the mafia. 

Released nearly thirty years after Goodfellas, The Irishman doesn’t have the “immediate classic” feel of Mean Streets or Goodfellas, nor the energy of Casino or The Departed. What it does have, however, is a haunting sense of melancholy that seeps through every frame of this mammoth movie. Scorsese doesn’t attempt to emulate his glory days: his mob thrillers may have glamourized the mafia lifestyle, but The Irishman is a slower, more introspective affair, one that benefits from a lingering sense of mournfulness. In effect, this doesn’t feel like a throwback; it’s more a curtain call that sees Scorsese explore a different facet of the genre he defined in no small way. 

He’s not taking the bow alone, as the old band are back together. The chemistry between the lead actors is palpable, with the De Niro-Pesci-Pacino trifecta feeling reigned-in and, in some cases, the veteran thesps enjoy subverting expectations. Pacino’s scenery-chewing ways persist but there’s a tenderness that peeks through Hoffa’s stubborn manner. As for De Niro, it’s a joy to see him properly act again, as the last time he wasn’t laughing his way to the bank off the back of an easy-pay check was in 2012 for Silver Linings Playbook. But it’s Pesci who runs away with the film. Coming out of retirement for The Irishman, his character is a total inversion of what you’d expect. There are no Tommy “Funny how?” DeVito antics, no psychopathic outbursts or hot-headed rants. Instead, we get quiet restraint, a measured menace whose unwavering eye-contact speaks volumes. 

Many will spill ink over the merits of the digital de-aging technology used in the film, which has its limits but works on the whole; there is, however, another noteworthy performance that bears mentioning, one delivered almost entirely through stares. Anna Paquin plays the adult Peggy, Frank’s daughter, and is mute throughout most of the runtime – save for two lines of dialogue. And that dialogue totals to six words in three-and-a-half-hours! Peggy is a witness, by design, but this numerical tally plays into the hands of those who have a case against Scorsese’s habit of back-benching many of his female protagonists. The Irishman will spark debate in this respect. That said, this is a story told from a masculine perspective about a ruthless man with no real sense of agency or compassion: Frank alienates his family through his work and his toxic patriarchal values that hide under the guise of protection. De Niro reveals signs of Frank suffering from this realisation, especially when Peggy, who is in many ways our constant and the soul of the film, asks him a question that opens the floodgates. She is the catalyst that leads him to acknowledge his unresolved trauma and a lifetime of morality-dodging. Paquin deserved more as a performer than to be the physical and symbolic embodiment of condemnation, but in the narrative context, her character is uniquely fascinating.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is solid, and compellingly balances a meditation on ageing and guilt with a handful of witty sequences. One scene in particular features a brilliant rant (courtesy of a to-and-fro between Stephen Graham and Pacino, naturally) that equals the tailgating diatribe in Lost Highway and recalls Pesci’s tirade in Goodfellas. However, even if Zaillian ensures that the many loose ends get satisfyingly tied up, it has to be said that the mobster lingo does verge on parody at times. Playful though it often is, it joins the self-indulgent runtime and some narratively redundant segments as bum notes that may test viewer patience. 

The Irishman may not be an outright masterpiece, but do yourself a favour and seek it out on a big screen while it’s being projected, without the Netflix fast-forwards or the smartphone interruptions. Much like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the theatre is the real place you need to see Scorsese’s latest. It’s a mournful epic whose operatic scope impresses, and is really worth your undivided attention. Just make sure your bladder is more bullet-proof than the overwhelming number of heads that get blasted in the space of 210 minutes.

The Irishman | Directed by Martin Scorsese (US, 2019), with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino. Limited release on Nov 14 – starts on Netflix on Nov 27.

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