The Irishman review: A masterclass in restraint
Ivan Radford | On 27, Nov 2019Reading time: 5 mins
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham
Watch The Irishman online in the UK: Netflix UK
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Good things come to those who wait. It’s an adage that can’t help but come to mind as The Irishman finally arrives on our screens, 12 years after it began development. It emerges from the other side of that tunnel as an epic that spans more than three hours and half a century. If that sounds like you’ll need patience to watch, you’re thinking along the right lines: this is a film that is born of patience and rewards patience. Ours, at least.
It follows Frank Sheeran, aka. The Irishman (Robert De Niro), a former World War II soldier who spends his service in Italy. Picking up Italian, he winds up crossing paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who gives him jobs to do – painting houses. Once a working man who would’ve taken that euphemism literally, he soon becomes a veteran hitman, furthering his skills on behalf of the mafia.
In one early exchange – taking place, as many of these exchanges do, in a moodily steakhouse – “Uncle Russ” compares Frank’s time in the military, following orders, with his newfound career. It might sound trite, but it’s chillingly accurate, as Frank rises through the mob ranks by never questioning his instructions and becoming increasingly desensitised to the brutality he inflicts – even more so, as he becomes employed by Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), union leader, political heavyweight and a man who isn’t afraid of getting in bed with organised crime.
So far, it’s familiar territory for Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese, but The Irishman’s scale, patiently stretched over a lifetime, brings a fresh perspective to the genre: what once might have been a blood-splattered opus of violence is here a sombre, reflective piece, which balances the sudden eruptions of claret with a melancholic mood. It’s a story of respect, yes, but also regret – and, poignantly in the case of Frank, an inability to connect with any real sense of remorse.
Robert De Niro is perfectly cast, his stony-faced demeanour chronicling that worn-down humanity, to the point where even a priest is challenged to elucidate a confession from him. He’s wonderfully contrasted with Al Pacino, who plays Hoffa with a boisterous charisma, a shouting certainty and a full-blooded conviction; he demands his dues from everyone around him, without giving anything back, each insensitive demand nudging him one step closer to his disappearance in 1975, which to this day remains unexplained.
The bond between the two men is at the heart of the movie – and that mystery – and Pacino and De Niro clearly relish the chance to work together again. Their lived-in chemistry places Hoffa and Frank somewhere between father and son and a pair of brothers, going to sleep in adjacent beds with all the innocent affection of Bert and Ernie, but with a gun in the side drawer.
The de-ageing technology, which made this the most expensive movie of Scorsese’s career – and led to Netflix stepping in to fund it – is an equally vital ingredient, taking the duo through decades of work and friendship. While initially distracting, in the case of De Niro, it doesn’t take long to get used to what is essentially the modern equivalent of make-up and prosthetics. And, filtered through the wisdom and pain of hindsight, each actor brings the weight of experience and the toll of tough consequences to their youthful selves. Pacino’s de-ageing, in particular, is breathtakingly seamless, as he exuberantly portrays the constant drive and inflexibility of the rising-and-falling labour chief.
And yet the show is stolen from both heavyweights by Joe Pesci. Pesci, who came out of retirement for the part of Russell, is remarkable without ever drawing attention to it. He resists the urge to be noisy or overbearing, instead underplaying each scene with beautiful nuance; his intimidating crime lord is as watchful as a sparrow, quiet as a mouse and ruthless as a hawk, and he talks almost exclusively in evasive lectures about people crossing lines, needing to be persuaded or requiring a sit-down to put them right. Every now and then, he pauses to note he doesn’t necessarily mean murdering them, but that only makes his casual, gentle presence all the more threatening; he’s a diminutive figure, but one who doesn’t need to take action to get his authority across.
Scorsese follows Pesci’s example as he assembles this extensive canvas, slowly and carefully putting each brush stroke into place; it’s a masterclass in restraint, a measured story that never once rushes or drags its steady, enthralling drumbeat. He surrounds his central trio with pitch-perfect supporting turns, from Bobby Cannavale as Frank’s early collaborator, Felix, and Harvey Kietel as Russell’s boss, Angelo, to Stephen Graham as Tony Pro, a rival to Hoffa who grins with shark-like ambition. Even Ray Romano shows up as a lawyer who can get anyone off for anything – a timeless, shrugging embodiment of the corruption brought into society by organised crime.
The period details sing with colour and energy, but it’s Frank’s later years that really make an impact. This is a gripping, accomplished piece of cinema from a director who, even late in his career, continues to experiment with new technology as much as he muses on the past. Scorsese’s tracking shots, once taking us through bustling, thrilling restaurants, here glide chillingly through the empty corridor of a nursing home, as we hear The Irishman’s account of what’s gone before. Accompanied by on-screen titles that inform us how each key player we meet eventually met their maker, Steven Zaillian’s writing blends dark comedy and a tangible loneliness with a thoughtful inevitability. Only bad things are in store for these fellas, no matter how long they wait.
The Irishman is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.