REVIEW: ‘The Irishman’ (2019) is Scorsese’s Most Personal Film Yet

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Some of the best work in Scorsese’s already immaculate career.”

Fade from black. A long tracking shot. The Five Satin’s 1956 hit “In the Still of the Night” plays in the background. Within a few seconds we know this is a Martin Scorsese film, but our opening setting is unlike his previous affairs. We’re not in the streets of New York or the fields of Italy; we’re in a nursing home when we first meet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), our humbled narrator who guides us through the legacy of his time involved in the Mafia, a story that spans over four decades.

The following 209-minutes are ones that juggle multiple narrative strands. Whilst we are greeted with Frank and his long-time friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in 1975, we are flashed back to their first ever encounter in 1950s Philadelphia, where Russell helps out Frank after a problem with his truck. This first encounter leads Frank to rise in the ranks as a Mafia bodyguard and hitman, all the way to the top until Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the teamsters, rings him personally. “I heard you paint houses?” he asks Frank. Code for killing someone, the phrase is the sentiment to Frank Sheeran’s legacy, a man so dedicated to following orders.

The Irishman is certainly the event that it has hyped itself to be over the last few months. The star-studded cast of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel and so forth all teaming together under the vision of Scorsese for this gangster epic is something that would seem improbable to many production companies around today. Luckily Netflix have had no issues with the $200 million budget and with organising a limited three-week theatre release before it eventually spread to devices everywhere, showing how serious they’re wanting to take The Irishman’s award chances, especially after the criticism they received at Cannes and the Academy Awards earlier this year.

If any of Scorsese’s films deserve this success, however, it would be The Irishman. It may have been labelled as another Scorsese gangster flick, but this is by far his most personal film yet. The last hour of this film is some of the best work in Scorsese’s already immaculate career. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker fully warrant the three-and-a-half-hour runtime and, considering the amount of subject matter that was already in the novel, there’s a great debate that it could have been even longer.  

It isn’t just the usual suspects that deliver this time round; the whole cast go toe to toe with the giants of Crime Cinema. Stephen Graham, by far one of the best British actors of today, delivers a distinctive performance as Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, Hoffa’s rival within the Teamster community. Anna Paquin’s portrayal of Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran defines the entirety of The Irishman within her small amount of time on screen. There has been some criticism for how little she features, but if you’ve seen the film and still believe that, you may have missed the point entirely.  

Other criticisms may come in the form of its technical effects and the use of CGI to de-age actors like De Niro and Pesci to make them look as if they are in their 30s or 40s. Moments when Russell calls Frank “kid” do seem quite jarring as, despite the CGI, the main cast all look around the same age throughout the decades. It’s not a big enough issue to take you out of the film and it’s not a credible enough problem to dismiss this as the masterpiece it certainly is. After five minutes, you will have completely forgotten the CGI at all, instead fully engaged in watching the last gangster film we will ever see with this a-star cast and crew.

The term ‘Epic’ was made for movies like this. The Irishman is more than just Scorsese’s Once Upon a Time in America, it dares to ask more about what family you prioritise and how what you perceive to be the right thing can further lead you astray. The Irishman is pure cinema and, at this point, Scorsese has done enough to say and think whatever he wants about an industry that he has shaped and changed forever.

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel

Available: Netflix