Although its marathon runtime can be a little exhausting, this is a masterclass in gangster filmmaking from Martin Scorsese.
It’s fair to say that Martin Scorsese’s latest feature has been a long time coming. In development since 2007, The Irishman struggled to find financial backing and the required technology for the story that the acclaimed 76-year-old auteur wished to tell. Even when streaming giant Netflix picked up the project ten years later and provided Scorsese with his desired budget (it’s his most expensive production to date), it’s still taken another two years to reach cinema screens. So, has it all been worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. An epic mob drama that spans the 20th century, it could easily be argued as Scorsese’s best film since the turn of the millennium.
Based on the memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman follows the life of Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, a WWII veteran who commits to a life of crime as a hitman in the service of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, out of retirement specifically for this). Soon enough, Sheeran comes into contact with union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a boisterous personality but a corrupt leader also with links to organised crime. Frank becomes close friends with Jimmy, a friendship that later becomes conflicted as allegiances sway.
At 3-and-a-half hours, the film has a runtime that would send most producers into a tailspin and demanding an immediate trim – and then some. Remarkably though, there is never the sense that any scene is indulgent filler or any moment a wasted beat. Scorsese uses every precious second of The Irishman‘s 209 minutes to tell Sheeran’s tale to the fullest extent possible, without ever compromising the narrative by cutting or rushing through certain moments in order to get to key set-pieces fast. Movies of similar length usually contain unnecessary baggage (*cough* Tarantino *cough*), so this is quite an impressive feat. The film establishes an unhurried pace that works in its favour, but there’s undoubtedly an immense amount of plot to get through. Be prepared to be playing catch-up if you momentarily lose attention or mishear a line of dialogue, especially with the countless number of Machiavellian dealings going on. It can be exhausting at times, but hopefully The Irishman‘s exquisite period detail should have enough transportive power to keep audiences fully engrossed.
To fill out the lovingly crafted set design, Scorsese has ensembled a jaw-dropping cast. The performances on display are absolute knockouts. The proper reunion of the director and De Niro has especially been long-awaited. Although the latter hasn’t been top billed in something decent this century, De Niro is a figure of ultimate composure as Frank Sheeran. This is in spite of the fact that the actor is considerably de-aged for over half of the film. His blue eyes during these sequences sometimes look hollow and slightly demented, especially in close-up, but this disconcerting effect wanes as the film progresses. In comparison, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa is de-aged throughout. It’s extraordinary how quickly you forget that his appearance is an illusion of CGI, which is only helped by a bombastic, fiery performance from the old-timer. Equally astonishing, this is Pacino’s first ever collaboration with Scorsese.
There are other terrific turns amongst the large ensemble. Line of Duty star Stephen Graham appears as rival mobster Tony Provenzano, with Ray Romano typically amusing as attorney Bill Bufalino. It would be criminal, however, not to celebrate the (presumably brief) return of Joe Pesci as the quietly powerful Russell Bufalino. It’s an understated performance, with Bufalino in the background for the majority of the film, but Pesci gives it a weight that leaves the crime boss’ presence felt throughout. A crucial scene between Sheeran and Bufalino late on is so beautifully underplayed by De Niro and Pesci that it’ll give you shivers.
It’s hard to think how The Irishman would ever have been made in the form it is now if Scorsese hadn’t turned to Netflix. Alas, the limited theatrical window is a real shame; this is a film that deserves to be seen on big screens, with big sound. Nevertheless, it’s such an adroit piece of storytelling from Scorsese and co. that, in light of the troubled road to production, it comes as some relief that it’s going to be seen by audiences at all. The looming shadow of the large bold ‘N’, embedded into the opening credits, doesn’t stop this from being masterful filmmaking from one of cinema’s few remaining masters.
The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, played at this year’s BFI London Film Festival as the Closing Night Gala. It will be released in selected UK cinemas on the 8th November and available to stream via Netflix on 27th November, certificate 15.