The Irishman

 

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Martin Scorsese returns to familiar territory with a laboured, languid but exquisitely crafted tale of violence and betrayal.

 

Irishman, The

Bob'll-fix-it: Robert De Niro

   
Frank Sheeran was a labour union official and all-round fix-it guy for the Mob. As most of his cohorts were Italian-American, he acquired the sobriquet of ‘the Irishman’ because of his father’s Irish ancestry. He was also a husband and father of four daughters, although his private life is a gossamer affair in this adaptation of Charles Brandt's non-fiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses of 2004. Brandt – and the film’s scenarist Steven Zaillian – seem more interested in Sheeran’s connection with the union leader Jimmy Hoffa and the trail of bodies left in their wake. It’s not until after the third hour that Sheeran is confronted by one of his daughters about his paternal responsibilities and it is a poignant, wrenching moment, albeit too late in the day to give the man any emotional texture.

 

The Irishman is a perfect fit for its director Martin Scorsese, now 77, and it is a bravura display of craftsmanship. It is beautifully shot by the DP Rodrigo Prieto and elegantly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and in some ways its leisurely pace and frequent longueurs feel like the work of a director at full maturation. Scorsese made his name with the high-octane gangster films Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino and Gangs of New York, but here, with 209 minutes at his disposal, he has let some of the air out of his narrative tyres. His thespian muse Robert De Niro recycles his familiar shtick as Sheeran, albeit in a lower gear, while pulling his customary faces. Much, much better is Joe Pesci – coaxed out of retirement by De Niro – as the wily, commanding crime boss Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino provides an explosive turn as the volatile Hoffa.

 

Scorsese’s other trademarks are all here – the profane language, period songs and sudden bursts of violence – but there’s an almost misogynistic lack of a female presence. Sheeran and Hoffa’s wives barely get a line of dialogue and are the butt of a running joke in which they slow the action down for interminable cigarette breaks. The film’s nominal female lead – Anna Paquin, as Peggy Sheeran – has one single line of dialogue (“Why? Why haven’t you called Joe?”). Otherwise, the film amounts to a series of meetings, confrontations and rather unconvincing ‘hits’ and it all gets terribly repetitive. Released briefly in a few cinemas (to qualify for Oscar glory), the film is largely a flagship for the streaming giant Netflix and its length reflects the trend of the company’s binge culture. But even at almost three-and-a-half hours, the character of Frank Sheeran – and our narrator – feels like a cipher for bigger things.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Louis Cancelmi, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Sebastian Maniscalco, Lucy Gallina, Jim Norton, Barry Primus, James Harkins.

 

Dir Martin Scorsese, Pro Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett and Gabriele Israilovici, Screenplay Steven Zaillian, Ph Rodrigo Prieto, Pro Des Bob Shaw, Ed Thelma Schoonmaker, Music Robbie Robertson, Costumes Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson.

 

TriBeCa Productions/Sikelia Productions/Winkler Films-Netflix.

209 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 27 November 2019. Cert. 15.