Film Review: The Irishman


In a career positively littered with jewels, Martin Scorsese manages to surpass expectations once more. The Irishman is a magnificent gem. 

Frank Sheeran recounts his life as a mob hitman and a labour union official. Frank tells of his relationship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa, as well as some of the most powerful mobsters in the second half of the twentieth century…

Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zallian have created something special with The Irishman. The film is compelling from start to finish. Running at almost three and a half hours, this is no mean feat. Instead, the film flys by in no time at all, which is testament to Scorsese and Zallian’s storytelling abilities. 

Starting with an ageing Frank Sheeran telling his story directly to viewers, the film tells a story through a second story. A road trip to a wedding becomes a vehicle for Sheeran to look back. From here, the narrative unfolds in a chronological fashion, interspersed with scenes from this road trip. The story is woven in an engrossing fashion. The script is fantastic, with snappy dialogue and captivating narration. The Irishman offers plenty of laughs, yet can change tone so effortlessly. 

Focusing on real events, Scorsese knows when to be restrained and when to be outlandish. Tying events to moments of historical importance, the film works almost to expose an underside of 20th century American history. Scorsese both emphasises the impact of one man, and positions the machine behind as a dominating force. 

Scorsese underlines how Sheeran‘s line of work impacted him, particularly later in life. The director has erroneously been accused on glamorising crime and violence in the past. It is unlikely anyone would make that mistake here. The Irishman is an introspective study, with Scorsese pulling no punches where it counts. 

Violence is sparse in the film, and utilised very effectively. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts away from the most visceral on occasion, and at other times Scorsese leaves viewers no place to hide from the brutality. Scorsese’s visual flair is always present. Particularly pleasing is a reverse tracking shot which goes back forward and moves away at a critical point. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto create some beautiful shots. The film soundtrack is excellent, and helps to set the different eras very well.

For most Scorsese fans it is genuinely a thrill to see the filmmaker reunited with not only Robert De Niro, but also Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. Add Al Pacino to the mix, and the result is dynamite. De Niro is wonderful here, and ably assisted by a brilliant Pesci and a fiery Pacino. It is the best performance from De Niro for years, and Pesci has rarely been as strong. Other regular Scorsese contributors Stephen Graham and Bobby Cannavale are an asset in supporting roles.

Any scepticism that the re-teaming of Scorsese and De Niro may be a disappointment can happily be swept aside. The Irishman is a truly stunning accomplishment.

The Irishman closes the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

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