The closing night gala of the BFI London Film Festival saw the European premiere of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, starring Hollywood legends Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. The Netflix film made news long before people got to see it. Not only does the film clock in at just under three and a half hours, the production used incredible anti-aging CGI technology to turn its high-powered cast into their younger selves.
The Irishman tells the life story of mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), based on the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. “Painting houses” is a phrase used by members of the mafia to describe an order to kill, with the paint symbolising blood splattered across the walls.
The first hour of the film recounts a young Sheeran’s time in the army, as he was serving in Italy during the Second World War. There he becomes accustomed to speaking Italian, completing orders and killing without asking too many questions. Back in New York, now driving meat-laden trucks he makes the acquaintance of Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the Bufalino family.
Frank starts completing jobs for the older man, slowly gaining his trust and becoming integral to the family’s operations. This ultimately leads him to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the leader of the Teamsters Union, and the second most powerful man in the country. Frank’s loyalty is put to the test when tensions between Bufalino and Hoffa threaten to escalate.
The film also details Sheeran’s family life, as a husband and father of four daughters. We see him lose his temper when daughter Peggy talks of a grocer shoving her in a deli in their neighbourhood. While Frank brutally beats the other man within an inch of his life, young Peggy looks on. Witnessing her father’s violent acts puts a strain on their relationship, and follows Peggy into adulthood (now played by Anna Paquin), which is something the family can never recover from.
De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are superb, and despite the originally off-putting de-aging process, deliver career-best performances. The film is beautifully crafted with exquisite direction and a delicate production design that gives away the project’s astronomical budget.
The Irishman is classic Scorsese, but it’s not Scorsese at his best. The pacing is off, and far too slow for a film meant to be consumed via streaming platform. A three-hour film may be able to hold its own at the box office, but it will be much more difficult to keep streamers (buried to the neck in fast-paced action and crime dramas) from jumping in and out of the action as they please. Unfortunately, apart from its three leading men the remaining characters presented in The Irishman fall flat. Anna Paquin’s Peggy especially deserves far more than a singular line and a few upset looks.
Nonetheless, this is not your everyday mob crime drama, and The Irishman occasionally delivers absolute hilarity – from the ease with which De Niro’s Frank executes kills and disposes of bodies and weapons to Hoffa’s moments of extraordinary rage. It also goes far deeper than just Sheeran’s sins, and in its final act starts questioning morality and mortality, all of which makes for a compelling watch.
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