The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★

When Martin Scorsese received his Oscar for The King of Comedy (shut up, it's my headcanon) it was presented by three of his peers, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Time has obviously taken all four men on very different journeys, not least the fact that Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas have frequently been at the forefront of new technology and new ways of working, and Scorsese hasn't. This isn't necessarily a flaw on Scorsese's part. The other three directors have all made films where the story of how they were made is more compelling than the story they're actually telling. Scorsese has always prioritised that art of screen storytelling, and even the films of his that haven't clicked with me - primarily New York, New York and The Age of Innocence - still have a clear purpose, direction and passion behind them as a result.

There is much more to The Irishman than its much-discussed CGI rejuvenation of Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, but it's a testament to Scorsese's intelligence that most of those other things can be got at through the lens of its effects work. Previously when Scorsese has used visible CGI it's had a certain metaphysical quality. The computer-generated images in Shutter Island and Silence are meant to be read as products of the heroes' mental illness and religious devotion respectively; the departure from concrete realism is the point. It is possible to read The Irishman in a similar way, as a dying man's unreliable fantasy of his youth, but that's something to discuss outside the cinema. For its 210-minute run time, you are meant to accept those CGI faces as real actors in a real story.

It's surprising how easy that is. Indeed, given how rarely he acts these days, Joe Pesci's computer-generated Goodfellas-era face is more familiar and less surprising than how he actually looks now. This technology is not new, exactly - I'd say the best prior attempt at it was Samuel L Jackson in Captain Marvel, although it's cheating to use an actor who's barely aged since the 1990s. More seriously, Jackson was playing a side character. You didn't see him for the whole movie. You didn't have to - as you frequently have to here - look into his eyes and feel deep sadness. You didn't see him - as you have to with De Niro's Frank Sheeran - watch him age from a young recruit in World War II to an elderly man watching the Balkan War on a nursing home TV, a man of violence measuring out his life in conflicts.

For a director who is normally associated with a timeless kind of class and quality, this is a big step: a movie that, from its cutting-edge effects to its Netflix distribution, could only be made now. You could, theoretically, have made this ten years ago with Leo or Matt aged up, but the resulting film would have been massively different. Even if the make-up process had worked, Steven Zaillian's script would have had to be changed significantly. Here, the writer cuts around between time periods with a thrilling, casual complexity, confident that the audience will never need time to adjust to a new actor playing Frank Sheeran.

But it also wouldn't have been as emotional. The Irishman is a film about old age made by old men, and it's this knowledge, this weight of a lifetime, that stops it from being a retread of territory Scorsese has visited many times before. Even the ending of Goodfellas doesn't get across the sense of a life wasted as crushingly as the scenes in The Irishman showing Sheeran at the end of his life, slumped in his chair, talking to a priest in his nursing home. There's a wonderful little moment where he hears an old associate has died, and without thinking he asks "Who did it?" "Cancer", comes the reply. Death now comes without a motive, without a story, without a reason. It just comes because it's death.

Obviously Scorsese and De Niro deserve to look back on their lives with less regret than Sheeran, but they can imagine this feeling much more persuasively than they could when they were young tyros. And we, too, feel the reality of it because we've watched these guys for so many years, in so many roles, and we remember them as we watch this film. (Sometimes not the expected roles, either - Al Pacino's energised, speechifying Jimmy Hoffa is like his Mayor in City Hall gone right) It's not a perfect film; you do feel the length, and I couldn't fully understand why Sheeran turned against Hoffa. Perhaps that's just a mindset I'll never understand. But it shows a great director at 77 still trying new things, and making the new and unreal feel lived-in and genuine.

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