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MOVIES: The Irishman (LFF 2019) - Review

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Martin Scorsese is a legend, and to see him return to the big screen at the helm of another gangster epic, more wizened and matured than ever, showcases the growth of one of the most talented directors in cinema’s history. The film feels like a swan song to a legendary career that has spanned multiple decades from films like Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to The Departed, Shutter Island & The Wolf of Wall Street, uniting star talents like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro together to weave a three hour epic that explores what happened to the guys who were the underlings in the mafia during the 1960s and 70s, touching on key events such as the Kennedy Assassination, echoing 1979 drama The Wanderers. Like the street gang, DeNiro and all don’t play a key role in history, but their characters are shaped by it, moulded by events that play out on screen before them, and we get to see their reactions to key events when they're in restaurants watching television and the news just happens to be on in the background, allowing for plenty of reaction shots.

DeNiro is one of the most talented actors around so it is no surprise to see that an actor of his calibre adds a touch of authenticity to every word that comes out of his character’s mouth, truth or lie - and from the moments the tracking shots and the traditional Scorsese musical montages kick in, there’s no mistake about The Irishman - it is old school Scorsese territory and those who thought he might have abandoned the genre altogether after Silence needn’t have worried. There’s no Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter in play but the music still has a very Scorsese feel to it yet it never feels like a "greatest hits" movie that it appeared to be on the surface.

The performances are more restrained and reflective than normal. That’s in part due to Scorsese replacing real-life character introductions with documents of their fates, where we learn their grisly endings before they saunter off camera, never to be seen again. One exception to this rule is the Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, a labour leader and activist, a real-life figure who commands the screen with a charismatic presence where you begin to see why he has the charisma that made him so popular at the ballot box. Scorsese’s attention to detail makes this film act like a nice comparison to Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network, as while that is a more encompassing ensemble drama, The Irishman, large cast and all, feels above everything else about the journey of two men; Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, as we follow both their rise and fall. Scorsese lets DeNiro shine by putting him front and centre - the Watson to Hoffa's Holmes if you will – although the actor’s reputation goes against him when it comes to seeing him play an ordinary mafia man when you’re used to seeing him in the role as the top dog, it’s to his credit as an actor that when he puts the effort in, he is still capable of putting in Oscar worthy performances and never is it more clearer than this film here.

What's also perhaps interesting to note in addition to this, is that one of the main observations during a press conference that followed the screening of The Irishman (that I was lucky enough to be in attendance for) with Scorsese, DeNiro and Pacino present along with producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal was that the emphasis that CGI was becoming the next step forward in terms of make-up, and it’s employed so delicately here that it never feels jarring at all, fitting a de-aged DeNiro in naturally around his surroundings and opening up a wealth of potential for CGI changes to movies in the future to take greater leaps than before.

Although The Irishman is the Pacino and DeNiro show (and it'd be a crime for both of them to not be nominated at this year's Oscars and you could make a case for both of them winning), actors like Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano and Anna Paquin all lend their roles to The Irishman to make it an A-List cast that any director would be jealous to have at their disposal, with extended cameos for the likes of Stephen Graham and Jesse Plemons, all in stellar form. Paquin’s role is sparse as Frank’s daughter who is old enough to be aware of what’s going on with him and the morally grey character that haunts him, and the film never idealises or hero worships his character, frequently showing us the troubles and the negative elements of Frank’s life. Frank may live through these events but the body count around him piles up, and it’s a lonely life without a heroic end. The final few minutes of The Irishman never fail to be emotionally devastating, benefiting from the deeply personal touch that Scorsese applies to the genre that he's most familiar with.

People comparing The Irishman to Goodfellas or Mean Streets should take into account that the film is different enough to stand out on its own; it is more comparable to Silence than perhaps any other film that the director has had a hand in. Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, the film demonstrates the benefit that care and precision has to The Irishman, and it’s hard to imagine this coming out as good as it was without a talent as legendary as this on board. It’s one of those films that stands up to the test of time already – the more you think about it the more you like it – and immediately after leaving it you’ll want to embark on a binge of Scorsese’s lengthy filmography. Even if this is a Netflix original, it’s something that feels better suited to be watched on the big screen, and I cannot wait to see the film in cinemas again when it comes out theatrically later this year.

More like one of the best films of the decade than of the year, The Irishman is an essential viewing experience.

You can watch the trailer for The Irishman here.

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