Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 13

Fanny Lye Deliver’d, Bombay Rose, and the Closing Gala: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Martin Scorsese is probably not reading this but in case he is: Marty, you forced me to have to run at 6am on a Sunday fucking morning, after being forced to awaken at 5am on a Sunday fucking morning, in the drizzling dark through streets I did not know and was not very comfortable going through.  I’m pretty sure that such a thing is a violation of my basic human rights and you plus the assholes at the LFF scheduling team responsible for this shall be hearing from my lawyers.  So too will London’s entire Metropolitan Line scheduling services, only running their first trains at 7am, necessitating the 15-minute run to Wembley Park so I could hit the 6am Jubilee Line.  And, you know what, I think I might sue all of humanity and God for good measure whilst I’m at it.  Christ, I’ve been on this 6/7am grind pretty much every single day for the last fortnight, most times involving running then too!  The last thing I needed, nay, deserved was to have to do even more of it even earlier!  Somebody please think of the poor Press and Industry folks who’ve already ingested enough caffeine over the Festival to give a sloth a heart-attack, and also the stupid sods who don’t drink caffeine at all yet try and do an intensive festival anyway!  (Guess which I fall into.)

Yes, the press screening for the Closing Gala technically did not start until 8am, but if you planned to get there for doors opening at 7:30, you most likely weren’t getting in.  By the time I got to the ODEON in Leicester Square for roughly 6:50, the line had already stretched around the corner and past the Wetherspoons.  Everybody had known this would happen ever since the screening schedule had been released a week prior to the Festival, and doubly so once whispers started spreading around that there were no other non-Festival-affiliated screenings of the film elsewhere in the city prior to this one (rumours I cannot confirm or deny cos nobody tells me nuttin’), and open talk of strategies to hold down places for others and recon scouts and Official Coffee Dispatchers had been going on since at least last Friday (none of which I was involved with at all and you can’t prove a damn thing, copper).  People were already in the queue before 6am, there was actual #fakenews about the size and time of the queue which needed shutting down firmly fast, and by door-opening the line had snaked back on itself through to the centre of Leicester Square.  Such is the power of Martin Scorsese.

So, what of The Irishman (Grade: B+/A-), his new Netflix crime epic which caused so many of us to throw our bodies and sleep schedules to the wind in hopes of getting in and with a good seat?  Well, let’s start first of all with the thing that has caused the most speculative discussion about the film ever since it was revealed, second only to that whole Netflix business: The Irishman is about 30 seconds shy of being 3 hours and 30 minutes long.  It’s a daunting runtime, most especially for Netflix Original Films which usually hover somewhere around the 90-minute mark whilst their prestige stuff rarely pushes over 130, one which is just as likely to repel people as it might intrigue others.  Make no mistake, The Irishman is just as much of a commitment for you the viewer as it was for the filmmakers, having taken almost twelve years to finally realise, and it’s not an easy watch; not an “alt-tab” movie like Netflix Originals are often so fond of being.  And yet, aside from a few moments where my concentration threatened to fade as a result of the collective past fortnight and the plush reclining leather chairs of the ODEON, those are 209 minutes which largely don’t feel like 209 minutes.  The Irishman truly earns that epic runtime and it does so by eventually revealing itself to be a eulogy for the type of film which made all of its principal creatives’ – Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Thelma Schoonmaker, Harvey Keitel – various careers.  The Irishman is three-and-a-half hours because it is a definitive burial.

Not that it feels so at the outset.  Sure, we may be introduced to Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as a feeble, liver-spot-riddled, wheelchair-bound old man narrating his past in a nursing home to himself and some invisible Other presence – perhaps God given that religion, both practiced and lapsed, factors passively into most of its cast’s lives – but the opening hour is Scorsese playing all of his greatest hits.  Sheeran is an unquestioning order-following WWII veteran (he fought in Italy) who returns to America in the late-40s to drive meat trucks for a living, hustling and stealing in an effort to get by for his family due to a lack of other skills, until the fateful day he is formally introduced to Russell Bufalino (Pesci).  Having already made a number of connections with other members of the Family, Frank is brought into the fold and pulls a series of transport and intimidation favours for his new father figure until an inadvertent fuck-up graduates him to the roll of enforcer and hitman, a job he is extremely good at.

This opening stretch sees Scorsese indulging pretty much all of his favourite stylistic tricks and narrative tropes (the screenplay being provided by Gangs of New York’s Steven Zallian).  Highly choreographed forward-momentum long-takes through a building to show the key players, blackly humorous and often circular dialogue between groups of three or four low-level gangsters, sudden bursts of quickly-finished and coldly-delivered violence, tracking shots of a car’s wheel as it rides down a street in slow-motion, scenes and montages cut to a careful needle-dropped rhythm.  One starts to get the impression that the only reason why we haven’t had a Rolling Stones needle-drop yet is because the narrative hasn’t reached a point in the timeline where the band had existed.  It’s not exactly fun in the same way the first two-thirds of Goodfellas were fun, but it is propulsive and energetic and a damn-good time, if a touch overly familiar for a filmmaker who prides himself on constantly looking forward.

And then Frank meets the second of his father figures, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the head of the Teamsters union who specifically seeks out Frank’s talents to forward his ties to organised crime, keep his splintering Teamsters in line, and generally act as a genuine friend and confidant during periods of his life where he appears to have neither.  It takes a while after Jimmy appears in the narrative, which is roughly an hour or so in, but a noticeable shift in the film does occur as a result of his arrival.  The energy wains, the mood turns sombre, any semblance of fun and glamour (both of which were muted to begin with) starts to fade away, and the movie turns altogether heavier.  What first seems to start out as a movie spiritually linked to Goodfellas and Mean Streets soon reveals itself to have much more in common with Scorsese’s previous feature, the criminally underrated Silence.  The recurring bit of having certain side and background players in the movie have their name, cause of death, and date of decease flash on-screen upon their first introduction ceases to be cute and soon starts to become the sobering point: The Irishman is a film about death.

There’s this line by Jadakiss on Jay-Z’s 1998 posse cut “Reservoir Dogs” where he brags that “gangsters don’t die/they get chubby/and move to Miami,” and even though the contexts and intended meanings are so different – Jada meant it as a point of pride, for one – I couldn’t stop thinking about it as The Irishman’s second half unfolded, especially during its final haunting hour.  This is a movie about the miserable, honest truth of being the kind of gangster who mostly gets away with it all.  Goodfellas and Mean Streets were praised for their thoroughly unromanticised depiction of the gangster lifestyle in comparison to movies like The Godfather and Scarface, but they really do got nothing on The Irishman.  There are no thrills, no bitter infighting, no massive stings, no sense of a noose tightening around Frank’s neck.  Crimes are largely talked out, nobody does anything without the approval of higher-ups and the higher-ups’ higher-ups, and long-time friends and associates are unsparingly gunned down when they don’t show proper respect in a manner which has an air of depressing unsentimental inevitability since the movie isn’t about those wildcard characters.  It’s about the ones doing the killing and how empty their lives become when no such killer ends up coming for them.

To that end, the digital de-aging of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci is, for the most part, worth every penny and only becomes distracting from a few specific angles or if you are deliberately looking for it.  It’s the closest such technology has come to being as easy to accept as traditional quality make-up and prosthetics.  Yet, there is still an uncanniness to seeing the three leads playing younger versions of themselves for much of the runtime, and it’s due to their body language.  All three are consciously attempting to move like their thirty years younger selves but cracks in their posture and manner of walking, most especially De Niro, betray their true age and how even the best effects technology in the world cannot turn back the clock fully.  But rather than distract, it adds to the rather haunting effect of the movie, of witnessing Frank attempt to disappear back into his memories, a time where he and his friends used to be somebodies, but never fully managing to lose himself within there, constantly being reminded of the failing body he currently has and the lifetime of pain and misery it has inflicted upon others as well as himself.  He is a tourist in his own memory.

Scorsese is, too, deliberately invoking memories of not just his past mob dramas, including The Departed, but also the history of gangster and crime movies altogether.  One early scene where Frank assaults a grocer who shoved his daughter – who grows up to be played by Anna Paquin, an actress who manages to say so much as the character despite having maybe four lines of dialogue and less than 10 minutes of screen time total – is shot and staged in a manner designed to recall the scene in The Godfather where Sonny beats Carlo bloody in the street.  Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa with his wild temper and lack of respect for the proper way of doing things draws a few parallels to his iconic Tony Montana, only if he’d gotten into unionising instead of cocaine.  Even something like On the Waterfront in its tale of Teamsters and mob ties, and I feel like Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto nick a few shots from there too.  In all of these little aspects, it’s almost like Scorsese is trying to lay this sort of tale to rest once and for all, writing its epitaph in such a definitive way that he and everyone else have nothing left to say in the genre and how it reflects the ugliest undersides of the American Dream.

The Irishman is a true epic with a lot to digest, hence why I’ve hedged my bets on the grade for the time being.  There are plenty of surface pleasures, to be sure, whether they be Schoonmaker’s rhythmic and eventually sobering editing choices, Scorsese’s utterly assured filmmaking, the difficult tonal balancing act of the screenplay, and especially those performances – De Niro is the best he’s been since transitioning to “veteran actor” status, nobody has better utilised Pacino’s post-90s manic energy than here, and Pesci displays a revelatory subtlety which makes the eventual direction of his character so understatedly powerful.  But it’s the bitter, haunting undercurrent that manifests completely in this epic’s final hour which requires genuine unpacking, to sit with and ponder for not just hours but even days afterwards.

I feel that all of The Irishman’s best and most haunting qualities are represented in one of the film’s last scenes.  Frank is visited at his retirement home by federal agents asking him to spill names and admit to activities he did when he was younger and when Frank tries to defer to his long-term lawyer, they respond by informing Frank that the lawyer is dead.  Cancer.  “Everybody’s dead.”  Everybody except Frank, who still refuses to say anything, to remain the loyal soldier to the end.  But what has it gotten him?  Honour for despicable actions can’t be taken to whatever comes next, assuming there is even an anything next.  We all end up in the ground or in the furnace sooner or later and bullshit codes of honour by corrupt men cannot be much comfort when there’s nothing but time before one’s own arrives.  Real gangsters get cataracts and waste away into old age alone and unloved.

Martin Scorsese inevitably ends up sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, but I did also see two other films on Saturday (pre-Irishman day) that I promised to write up so let’s quickly close with those.  First up, Bombay Rose (Grade: C+), an animated feature from writer-director-art-designer Gitanjali Rao, fulfilling at the last possible minute my personal desire to see at least one animated film at the Festival per year.  And at least visually, I absolutely picked the right animated feature.  Bombay Rose is a truly sumptuous work of art and a relentlessly intoxicating feast for the eyeballs.  Rao and her team at Paperwood Animation have entirely hand-painted this movie, a team of sixty artists working at least twelve-hour shifts seven days a week for eighteen months – which is something she proudly mentioned in the Q&A that raised an eyebrow of mine given the recent exposés on crunch culture in the arts industries, but I’m choosing to believe everyone was fairly compensated and did so of their own accord until proven otherwise – and the effect is stunning to witness.  The interplay between colours, the shifting of detail, the transitions between shots and scenes, the deliberately stiff character animation that makes these paintings look like sentient creations still bound by the restriction of their medium.

It’s a truly beautiful film, one which visually makes for a heartfelt tribute to the city of Bombay – which was renamed Mumbai in recent years but has been pointedly named Bombay here as a political act – a populous and diverse yet poor and often regressive city with a rich history, and Rao continuously finds new and formally enticing ways to depict it.  But as a narrative, the movie is rather cold, awkwardly structured and numbingly repetitive despite the svelte 90-minute runtime – this thing draaaaaags.  Too many thinly-drawn characters, too many narrative and episodic detours that don’t really pay off, and the deliberate mixture of often depressing socio-realism with escapist flights of fancy which occur when our protagonists – a hustling flower salesman (Amit Deondi) falls in love with the girl working across the street from him (Cyli Khare) who is in an arranged marriage to the local gangster with the promise of a new life elsewhere – often ends up re-running the same beats and padding out time, at least when they’re not actively undercutting the emotional wallops as one such late-film cameo from a major Bollywood icon does.  By the halfway mark, I found myself mentally tuning out and checking my watch which was a disappointing development given how much incredible effort has clearly gone into the visuals.

But let’s end on a real mess of a thing, which is rather befitting for what’s been a real mess of a Festival.  Fanny Lye Deliver’d (Grade: C), the loooooooooong in development fourth feature from writer-director Thomas Clay – seriously, I’d heard that this wrapped back in 2016 – is a movie that I was trying extremely hard to fully like.  A religious drama kind-of, the film is set in 1657, the height of post-Cromwell-overthrow Puritanical Britain, and sees the Lye household consisting of stern unquestioned Civil War vet head John (Charles Dance), his loyal but dissatisfied wife Fanny (Maxine Peake), and their young impressionable yet somewhat feeble son Arthur (Zak Adams) being descended upon by outsiders.  Specifically, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and his partner Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds) who are deviant non-Protestant agents of chaos that, after John manages to eventually see through their deception when the roving band of Sheriffs come a-looking for them, attempt to break the Puritan bonds of the Lyes and convert them to their hedonistic, sinful and enticing lifestyle by picking at the obvious cracks and fissures in the family dynamic.

From there, and even a little before then, Clay pretty much abandons any pretence of this being your standard period drama and throws damn-near every trashy subgenre he can find into the broth.  There are elements of home invasion thrillers, religious horrors, erotic dramas, certain camera moves and staging invoke spaghetti Westerns, and most especially the video nasties of the late 70s and early 80s, particularly when the blood starts to flow and flow and flow and flow.  I overheard another P&I folk mention Straw Dogs on our way out of the screening and that’s a spot-on point of reference for Fanny Lye.  Although I don’t remember Straw Dogs being as totally directed as this ends up being.  Whilst it does lead to a visually arresting film that refuses to let the audience get bored, for every few directorial decisions Clay makes which enhance proceedings – the constant suffocating fog and mist, combined with the shifting colour palettes of the weather, really sell the isolation and purgatorial feel of the Lye house – there’s another one which feels way too show-offy and breaks the spell – prior to a critical action in the climax, Clay has his camera do multiple 360° rotations around Fanny like a Michael Bay film has accidentally just wandered on-set.

But there are much more catastrophic issues going on with Fanny Lye than trying to stage its climax like shit just got real in Bad Boys.  The material in Clay’s script and on raw film is mighty compelling, energetically performed, nicely trashy, and remains so even when it starts pushing buttons just for pushing buttons’ sake.  The crippling, irritating issue is that Clay does not seem to trust his audience in the slightest.  In fact, I’d argue he probably takes them for dullard simpletons and this mindset manifests in two key creative decisions.  The first is the score, which he composed himself and quite frankly sounds like it belongs in a videogame rather than this movie.  It’s fucking relentless, loud and bouncy and gaudy and almost always playing under every single scene, undercutting emotional reactions both positive and negative with its incessant Renaissance Fair bleating mixed distractingly high and rarely correlating to the tone of events on-screen.  It should be playing on the overworld map of an RPG, not in this thing.

The second, and the most egregious, is that Clay has Rebecca provide ongoing flowery narration throughout the course of events, even when she’s not present for certain scenes, even when there is otherwise engaging dialogue going on, and even when it is abundantly clear what is currently happening.  Rather than trust that his audience can follow along and infer character arcs, thoughts and feelings based on the performances of his actors, Clay just has Reynolds flatly tell you what they’re doing, thinking and feeling over and over and over again to a degree that starts to feel actively contemptuous when he has her say “Fanny felt a twinge of relief when Arthur got free of his ropes” as if that needed explaining when we can literally see Fanny right in front of us react that way without the additional aid of your elderly Nan who must loudly announce what’s going on on-screen to the entire theatre at all times.  Fuck’s sake, you have Maxine fucking Peake and Charles Dance in your cast!  They’re not fucking bush-league amateur dramatics rejects, I’m fairly certain they can perform their jobs with conviction at least partway adequately!

The narration ends up sinking the entire film by the end; strip it out, and that grade shoots up at least two full points already.  Instead, the screened version of Fanny Lye Deliver’d is a frustrating impotent failure.  Send it back to post-production for another few months and put it in the hands of someone who doesn’t think their audience has the mental capacity of a toddler, then we’ll talk.

Tomorrow: personal reflections from a wild two weeks, and my best of the Fest.

Callie Petch has got to got to KNOW!  GOT TO got to know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s