The Emperor’s Old Clothes?

One flask of coffee. Two croissants,  a bottle of water and 3 1/2 hours later and I have watched The Irishman on the  big screen, reclining in the luxuriousness of the Odeon Luxe cinema in Leicester Square at 8am  on  a Sunday morning.  Fairly glued to the screen, I didn’t move (as did few others), didn’t put the film on pause, move to go to the loo. But would I have been so attentive watching this on the small screen? Quite likely not. For this is classic Scorsese gangster thriller – and by that, nothing you’ve not seen before, and possibly even less.  I watch because it’s the silences and looks that give the most clues about character.  On the smaller screen, the absence of voice can easily be lost in the mayhem of family or shared viewing.

THE IRISHMAN’S story  is an interesting one, supposedly based on the true story of de Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran, from his memoirs (which have been disputed). Sheeran is an impassive character at best.  On the face of it, a tale revolving around the relationship with powerful unionist and Teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa, over a few decades is actually more truly a story of the string pulling influencer, Russell Bufalino, Sheeran’s mentor.  When it comes to who is protecting whom, it’s an interesting dynamic. Sheeran ‘paints houses…and sometimes does his own carpentry’ a thinly veiled reference to his nefarious acts, always inevitably done at the behest of Russell..

The problem with de-aging (and also, aging, is that whilst that (almost) works facially, it fails to overcome the issue of body movement. De Niro’s physical action as younger man always seems slightly stilted, almost hunched, as if hiding his inability to flex and run.  Pesci’s more inactive character gets away with it more, and he is the standout in this film.  Piercing looks, unspoken words, they are all part of his arsenal. He is the puppet-master and De Niro’s Sheeran is there to do his every will, mostly unspoken requests.

Sheeran’s only hint of remorse is in his daughter, Peggy’s gradual disassociation from him, which merited a much stronger development it would have helped him give the audience so much more. The opportunity generally to give the female characters a voice of any meaningful kind is sorely lacking here. Peggy’s silences do speak volumes, but you are still aching for her displeasure to manifest itself in more than one line.

Pacino’s Hoffa is also a richer, deeper character. Full of contradictions of ideals and actions, his rise, decline and fall provide the template for the story.  His relationship with Sheeran is powerfully observed. Whether it is true to life is rather irrelevant. Older folks in the US will probably be familiar with who he was, how he spoke, but his portrayal by Al Pacino is a joy to experience.

THE IRISHMAN is an impressive and epic film, clearly, and aiming for (though I think it will fail) Oscar glory, but it’s a boy’s own club rehash in many ways. Maybe a case of the emperor’s old clothes. It’s simply way too long, and whilst there’s much to admire, in its supreme accomplishment, to my mind, Casino and Goodfellas had more to offer in terms of story-telling.