Martin Scorsese's latest sprawling gangster epic has finally made it to the small screen. The great man's take on the life of hoodlum Frank Sheeran was first mooted as long ago as 2007. By early 2016 Paramount was on board, but it eventually transpired that only Netflix could afford a $159 million movie featuring many septuagenarians and not a single superhero.
Scorsese's decision to digitally de-age a familiar cast – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci – for large sections of the film raised eyebrows. Others worried the film might appear only on the streaming service.
The Irishman (which isn’t very Irish) is as emotionally engaging as any Scorsese film from this century. Clocking in at a bum-numbing three and a half hours, it sketches out an epic arc that never strays too far from considerations of mortality.
The de-aging has its issues, but the filmmakers just about get away with it. The first thing to note is that any Scorsese veteran expecting a return to the flashy wise-guy tropes of Goodfellas and Casino – both of which featured De Niro and Pesci – are in for a sizeable surprise (though not, we trust, a disappointment). This is a quieter, slower, more sombre affair.
The camera is less likely to zoom or wipe. The takes are longer. Not only does Gimme Shelter fail to appear, but pop songs of any stripe are conspicuous by their relative absence. It is more the Scorsese of Silence than of Wolf of Wall Street.
The director teases by beginning with a characteristically long tracking shot to the rhythms of The Five Satins’ doo-wop take on In the Still of the Night. But this is not a nightclub. It is a care home, and Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is talking us through the often-appalling highlights of his career with the East-Coast mob.
Messing around with the time scheme – a road trip from 1975 offers a framing device within a framing device – The Irishman sees Sheeran leave the army, fall in with hoodlum Russell Bufalino (Pesci) while driving trucks and eventually become a ruthless hitman.
“I paint houses,” he says, referring to the blood that splatters walls after the revolver is fired. (Weirdly “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the name of Charles Brandt’s source biography, is the only “title” that appears on screen.)
Those murders, spaced sparsely throughout a sprawling film, are rendered matter-of-factly in long and medium shots. Nobody will be accusing Scorsese of relishing violence here.
The picture finds its centre when Al Pacino arrives as the famously still unaccounted for union boss Jimmy Hoffa.
How delightful that Scorsese and Pacino, New York Italians born within two years of one another, finally got to make a film together. How much more delightful that Pacino delivers his most enjoyable performance in decades. The 21st-century Al has too often slipped into penny-dreadful excess, but here his relish is tempered by keen wit that plays sensitively off the surrounding actors.
Just listen to the disdain he puts into he words “New Jershshy” and feel for the watching bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
It's a funny turn in a film that finds surprising amounts of humour amid a long tour of lonely graves. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot all kinds of figures from America's secret history – Watergate burglar E Howard Hunt has a few lines – and at least one colourful, briefly glimpsed real-life eccentric played by Mr Pesci in a popular film of the 1990s (can you guess who?).
The texture of life in the 1950s and 1970s is lovingly rendered with references to the food, clothes and cars. Apparently one of the area’s legendary hot dog stands grilled their sausages with beer.
Time will tell us much about the wisdom of de-aging the stars for such lengthy sections. Will the technology seem absurd in a decade (or less)? Scorsese is certainly flying the flag for male white baby-boomers here: no young actors need apply, we have men born in the 1940s for that.
The effect is a little like that of a dull ache you are able to ignore for most of the working day. Every now and then you notice De Niro’s slightly glassy stare and are pulled out of the action. He is in almost every scene, but also not quite there in many. At any rate, the narrative is sufficiently gripping to distract from those worries.
The Irishman is the sort of sprawling grown-up flick they don’t make so often now. Netflix, hopeful for Oscars, screened it in Irish cinemas and has now unleashed it on smaller screens.