And now it’s over. The 62nd BFI London Film Festival wrapped on Sunday night with the Closing Gala capping off a fantastic, chaotic, messily-organised, exhausting, and altogether fun fortnight (at least whenever the Festival itself wasn’t busy falling to pieces). I myself got to see 35 films across 13 days in total, met and hung out with a whole bunch of cool people who helped to make all of the chaos a little more manageable, and managed to cap the entire experience off by having been in the same room as Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, as an accredited member of the press. Not bad, overall. You can find detailed write-ups of all 35 films, plus a brief interview with Rashaad Ernesto Green (of the great Premature) and my trying to turn that press conference into something article-formatted later in the week, over at my personal website. Also, own our Kelechi Ehenulo has been down here seeing many films I did not and her reviews will be going up on her site throughout the rest of the month.
So, The Irishman. That’s what you all want to know about, an assumption based on the fact that the press queue for it started at 6am on a Sunday and eventually snaked all the way around Leicester Square. Well allow me to blow your minds by informing you that Martin Scorsese has made a very good movie. I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with saying that it’s a great movie, but that’s less due to the film and more because The Irishman is a lot to digest – in some ways literally since, as you may already know, it runs just shy of three and a half hours – and almost demands repeat viewings, or at the very least time to let it sit. Even setting aside the intimidating length, something which (likely with the help of the irreplaceable Thelma Schoonmaker) largely breezes by, what Scorsese, screenwriter Steven Zallian, and actors De Niro, Pacino and Joe Pesci have constructed here acts largely like a euology to the gangster movies which, for many of them have defined their careers.
The obvious points of comparison in Scorsese’s filmography will be Goodfellas or Mean Streets, being as they were frequently unglamorous and eventually sobering examinations about life as a gangster. But whilst Irishman is in constant conversation with those prior movies – plus Casino and the entire non-Scorsese history of the genre including shout-outs to and invocations of The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America, and On the Waterfront – the Scorsese film it feels most spiritually reminiscent of is Silence, an often hopelessly bleak and haunting meditation on death, sin, corruption, and false notions of nobility. All shot through the darker, cracking seedy underbelly of the American Dream. An almost funereal sense of, if not regret then resignation permeates the film; this frustrated regret that the brutal death nor the criminal pubishment one deserves never arrived and so all that’s left is to grow ever older stewing in the memories as your body fades and your associates drop like flies until all that remains is a bullshit code of honour which doesn’t mean anything. It’s haunting.
On that note, the much-vaunted digital de-aging effects for De Niro, Pacino and Pesci were worth every penny; the faces only look uncanny from certain angles or if you’re deliberately searching for the imperfections. In fact, the uncanniness comes from how the three aging actors despite their best efforts are unable to properly move like the younger selves they otherwise appear to be and the effect adds to the ghostly sensation of the film, like all Frank Sheeran (De Niro) has left is to be a tourist in his memories yet is constantly reminded of his deteriorating physical state. All three leads are also magnificent – De Niro is the best he’s been since transitioning to veteran actor status, Pacino’s manic energy which abandoned most traces of subtlety after the mid-90s has never been better utilised than here as the hot-headed Jimmy Hoffa, and Pesci pulls out a revelatory underplayed turn as Russell Bufalino which becomes especially chillingly effective in the film’s last hour.
The Irishman is an epic in the truest sense of the word, something which actively resists condensed thoughts – hell, my full-length review at my site blows past 2,000 words and still feels surface-level to be brutally honest with you – and requires, nay, demands extensive reflection over multiple days rather than moving right on to the next thing. What’s definitely undeniable is the filmmaking on display, the masterful handling of tone that could only have been pulled off this well by a filmmaker as impeccable as Scorsese, and the slowly dawning realisation that you may have seen something lasting which earns its attempted grandiosity and import. Forget Netflix Original Films, there aren’t a whole of films period attempting do what The Irishman does.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Scorsese naturally sucks up a lot of the available air whenever he releases something new – seems he and Marvel have something in common in that respect – but I did see a number of notable other films in the last few days. For purposes of time and my poor Editor’s sanity [too late – Ed.], however, let’s stick to just two of the bigger ones here. The first, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, sees the Diary of a Teenage Girl director turn in her most uncomplicated film to date, although that is not meant to insinuate it being a watered-down slice of Oscar Bait. For one, despite what the sales pitch and having Tom Hanks play him may have you believe, this is not actually a Mr. Rogers biopic and Mr. Rogers himself is more of a side character in the semi-fictionalised story (it’s based on a personal Esquire article by Tom Junod but the characters are all given different names). Rather, it’s a personal drama about the cynical embittered investigative journalist (Matthew Rhys) assigned to profile Mr. Rogers, which utilises the biopic framework to explore and pay tribute to the values and lessons that Fred Rogers and his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, embodied and imparted.
A viewing of Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is arguably required prior to watching Neighborhood, particularly since Heller’s film is even less interested in getting under the skin of the icon at its centre than Neville’s doc and consequently doesn’t bother to explain key facets which carry major emotional significance. But Heller’s film still works as a brilliantly affecting tribute to the ideals that more of us could do with being goverened by – compassion, idealism, selflessness, forgiveness, and being supportive. It’s a really pure and extremely sweet and earnest movie which, for as easily as it goes down, is still capable of moments of gutting brutal emotional honesty – which is to say, this thing is ruthless at extracting tears from all but the stoniest of souls; I started at around about the taping of Daniel Tiger singing ‘The Mad In Me” and didn’t really stop until midway through the end credits roll. Hanks is great not despite but because he doesn’t fully convince as Fred Rogers the person, instead embodying Fred Rogers’ ideals perfectly, and Heller utilises the presentational device of our film being an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to play around with visual and narrative convention, most especially in blowing up the old modest miniatures from the show to widescreen without losing that sense of charm. It’s a wonderful film, sure to keep the tissue industry in business single-handedly for another few months after its release.
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Fanny Lye Deliver’d
The second of my other highlights, albeit not for the best of reasons, is Fanny Lye Deliver’d, the loooooooooooong in development (I heard of this thing wrapping back in 2016) fourth feature from cult British provocateur Thomas Clay. Straw Dogs if it were also a period religious drama, the film is set in the middle of Cromwell’s Puritanical Britain (1657) and sees the Lye household – consisting of stern Civil War vet head John (Charles Dance), his loyal but dissatisfied wife Fanny (Maxine Peake), and the father-idolising but physically and emotionally weak son Arthur (Zak Adams) – descended upon by two sinful hedonistic blasphemers, Thomas (Freddie Fox) and his maybe-partner Rebecca (Tanya Reynolds), attempting to deliver them from the crushing bonds of Puritanism by picking at the family’s loose threads and cracks in its foundations.
By the time the intruders’ cards are on the table, any and all pretense of Fanny Lye being your expected period religious drama has been killed and cooked on an open fire by cannibals. Clay directs this thing, which is to say he throws everything and the kitchen sink at his script and visuals to create a genre cross-pollinated broth where the origins of the project have been largely lost in the resulting miasma. Home invasion thrillers, religious horrors, spaghetti westerns, erotic dramas video nasties of the 70s and 80s (that last one becomes especially hard to ignore when the ultra-violence kicks in), Michael Bay actioners, all of it is fuel for the audacious fire and it is plenty compelling and enjoyably trashy aside from the few times when Clay starts pushing buttons for the sake of pushing buttons.
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Or, at least, it would be if Clay didn’t evidently think his audience has the comprehension ability of a foetus. What kills Fanny Lye stone-dead is not the sometimes confounding directorial choices or the occasionally mismanaged tone where some characters appear to have walked in from an entirely different film, but the constant insipid narration Clay has Rebecca spout at all times. Spelling out every last little thought, feeling and action even when one can very clearly see the action happening on-screen and don’t need it spelling out. It was about the time that he has Rebecca say “Fanny felt a surge of relief upon seeing little Arthur break free from his bonds” despite the fact that we can clearly see Fanny’s relief at Arthur’s untying, and Maxine fucking Peake is most certainly capable of communicating that most basic of actions by herself, that I found myself mentally screaming “ENOUGH WITH THE FUCKING NARRATION!” Cut it out of the movie and Fanny Lye immediately jumps up several notches in quality. As is, it’s an impotent frustrating failure.
You can catch up on our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here.