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1st January 2020

Martin Scorsese is currently on a roll of realising passion projects for which he struggled to find funding. His recent Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which elegantly blends fact and fiction, was sandwiched between his adaptation of a Japanese novel, Silence, and his latest work, The Irishman, which is based on the supposedly factual memoirs of Frank Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses. In this most recent case the largesse of streaming giant Netflix was necessary to fund the expensive de-ageing effects which allowed several lead actors to play characters at very different ages. Scorsese’s gratitude allegedly extended to his allowing the film to be officially called The Irishman, as Netflix wished, rather than retaining the book title he personally preferred. His acquiescence remains equivocal though, insofar as the film displays the name of the book as the apparent title in the opening minutes. Only during the end credits do we finally see Netflix’s title, although the book title also reappears. This title was supposedly one of the first things union legend Jimmy Hoffa said to Sheeran, during a telephone call, and was mob code for the occupation of hitman.

So what does the other, slightly unloved title mean? It would seem obvious that it refers to the main character, although oddly the words “The Irishman” only appear once during the near 200 minutes of the film, and in reference to somebody else: JFK. So in this film which tells the life story of a mafia hitman, it either refers to one of the most famous, real-life victims of assassination in the twentieth century or to a professional taker of life, even though the reality of Sheeran’s life as depicted in both book and film has been called into serious question by investigative journalists ever since the book’s first publication. Sheeran claims to provide sensational solutions to the mysteries surrounding the disappearance of his friend, Jimmy Hoffa, and the murder of JFK.

The film begins with the camera roving through a nursing home, in a way subtly reminiscent of the great tracking shots in Scorsese’s earlier mob epics, albeit stripped of the glamour and kinetic excitement which were the hallmarks of those films. Eventually the camera will discover an artificially ancient De Niro as Sheeran, who will be responsible for much of the film’s narration of earlier events, reminiscent of the extensive narration in Goodfellas and Casino. It is tempting to group The Irishman with those earlier Scorsese films as an informal trilogy of youth, maturity and old age in the mob. For although we see De Niro and others at various ages, this film’s centre of gravity is in old age and its proximity to death.

Seeing Sheeran at such an advanced age robs the film of any suspense concerning his fate at certain points in the film, but the film revels in such lack of surprise, introducing many of the characters with a brief text summary onscreen as to how and when they eventually meet their maker. Indeed the early explanation of the phrase “paint houses” shows a gun being fired at a man’s head and his blood “painting” the house; the identities of killer and victim are not discernible, but they will be when that precise image eventually recurs late in the film. History too, of course, means that the viewers will be less surprised than the characters at the most dramatic events in the film, but the context in which The Irishman places them attempts to reinvigorate our sense of what we thought we knew.

Also familiar is the tale of a young, or younger, man encountering the mob, making a favorable impression and climbing the ranks of the organisation. What makes this film special is the extent to which the concerns of this “family” are contrasted with Sheeran’s real family. The man who makes his mob career, Joe Pesci’s admirably restrained Russell Bufalino, is married but unwantedly childless, and he calls Frank Sheeran “blessed”, while attempting to foster something like familial relations with his children, particularly Peggy. But even before she fully understands the true nature of their world of crime and violence, she seems instinctively mistrustful of Bufalino, and keeps her distance: a response which increasingly finds its echo in her relationship with her father.

Yet Peggy’s reaction to Al Pacino’s brilliant and outrageous Jimmy Hoffa is utterly different. She loves the man who sees her father as a friend and brother as much as she dislikes the man who will eventually try to claim her father as his son. Frank too is clearly proud of his involvement with a man “who was as big as Elvis in the 50s and The Beatles in the 60s”, and a real friendship develops between Frank and Jimmy. Ultimately events will lead to a crisis in which Frank has to choose between his loyalty to Bufalino and to Hoffa, and ultimately between his own family and the criminal organization that sees him as family.

The length of The Irishman has apparently been an obstacle for some viewers, and while its pace is somewhat leisurely at times, the extended coda of its final half an hour is this film’s crowning achievement. Both Goodfellas and Casino end abruptly with nothing more than moments detailing the protagonists’ new life after a fall from grace and power within the mob. But here Scorsese takes his time and displays Sheeran’s after life on earth with brilliant attention to detail; subtly matched shots set up telling echoes between the life he had and the life he now endures. The shadow of death looms larger too as the former hitman confronts his own mortality, on the spiritual level of something approaching confession with a priest, as well as on the mundane level of haggling over the price of his own coffin.

The film is graced by uniformly excellent acting performances, and the de-ageing effects do not usually detract from the experience of watching the film. One exception is a sequence where De Niro administers a good kicking to the grocer who wronged his daughter: here the physical limitations of his true age are completely out of sync with his rejuvenated looks. Ironically the known fakery of the lead actor’s facial  appearance resonates in this moment with the disputed truth of his exploits. Ultimately though these are minor concerns and The Irishman remains a very fine film.

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