Why Anna Paquin’s Role Is Key to ‘The Irishman’
The following post contains SPOILERS for The Irishman, and also who might have killed Jimmy Hoffa. It’s what it is.
It’s almost 28 minutes before Peggy Sheeran gets a major scene in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Her father, mob hitman Frank Sheeran, returns home to find a young Peggy sulking; he discovers from his wife that Peggy got in trouble at the corner grocery store because she accidentally knocked something over. Apparently the mess was bad enough that the grocer physically pushed Peggy out of the store. Outraged that anyone would put his hands on his daughter, Frank grabs Peggy and leads her back to the store, where he drags the grocer into the gutter and beats him mercilessly.
Peggy watches the entire scene, and says nothing.
Peggy appears repeatedly through all 210 minutes of The Irishman, but even after she grows up and is played by Anna Paquin, she barely speaks — a fact that has become a bone of contention for some critics of the film. The Daily Mail even wrote an entire article collecting reactions from some viewers who were “baffled” by the decision to cast an Oscar winner in a small role with very little dialogue. But while it’s true that Paquin says very little throughout the film — there’s more uncomfortable silences in The Irishman than in the movie Martin Scorsese made a few years ago that was actually called Silence — Peggy leaves an enormous emotional impact on the film, and serves a very important role in the story.
Scorsese cuts from the scene with the grocer to one at the Sheeran dinner table, where the family sips from bowls of soup. No one says a word. Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina) eyes Frank (Robert De Niro) anxiously, as if she’s waiting for another eruption of anger that could come at any second:
This sequence makes it clear that Peggy’s stoic demeanor stems from this traumatic experience, and her subsequent fear of her father. A simple nod confirming her mother’s account was enough to condemn the grocer to a sadistic beating. From that point on, Peggy remains silent to protect herself and others from her brutal father.
She remains a presence throughout The Irishman, though, watching as Frank gets deeper and deeper into the mob and his illegal activities with the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese repeatedly cuts to Peggy’s point of view, revealing how she quietly observes her father, often from a distance. When Frank packs a bag — and grabs a pistol — before he leaves to go help Hoffa take firmer control of the union, it’s Peggy’s perspective as she peers through the door of his bedroom that Scorsese shows us.
Then, as Frank leaves in his car, Scorsese cuts to Peggy again, watching out the window:
After Frank leaves on this business trip, there’s about 35 minutes of screentime before he returns home. His next scene at his house is the morning after he murders Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House. This notorious real-world killing gives us a date for this scene: April 8, 1972. The scene above with Frank leaving while Peggy watches takes place shortly after the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. When he left, Peggy was still a little girl. When she appears the next time, she’s now played by Paquin. Without any dialogue at all, that jump in time tells us that Frank has missed his daughter’s entire childhood. Peggy glances at the news reports about Gallo, looks at Frank, and understands clearly what he has done.
This is a big reason why you cast an actor of Anna Paquin’s stature in a role with very little dialogue. You need someone who can say I know what you did, you disgusting a—hole with a single look. That’s what Paquin does in scene after scene. (Paquin pushed back against the notion that the role of Peggy was somehow beneath her with a tweet saying she “auditioned for the privilege of joining the incredible cast of The Irishman” and that she’s “incredibly proud to get to be a part of this film.)
Here, as Frank and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) discuss Hoffa’s increasingly erratic behavior at a banquet in Frank’s honor, it’s Peggy who again seems to be the sole witness to Frank’s transgressions.
In fact, Peggy often seems to be the only member of her family who sees Frank clearly. When he returns from murdering Hoffa — who loved and doted on Peggy as a child — she’s the one person in the house who questions the fact that he still hasn’t called Hoffa’s wife Jo to console her. Frank is so taken aback by the idea that anyone would actively question him that he can only answer Peggy’s “Why?” with “Why what?” When she explains, he mutters something about calling Jo now, and Scorsese cuts to the older Sheeran, alone in his nursing home, revealing that this day (August 3, 1975) was “the day [Peggy] stopped talking to me.”
It is worth noting that all of The Irishman is a story narrated by Sheeran as an old man. The Peggy we see in the film is largely a reflection of Frank’s memory and understanding of his daughter. The fact that he literally cannot recall a single meaningful conversation with his own child says more about his performance as a father than a dozen angry scenes of the two of them yelling ever could.
Interestingly, while Frank never speaks with Peggy again, he does have a conversation with another of his daughters, Dolores (Marin Ireland). He tells her he knows he wasn’t a good father and claims everything he did he did to “protect” her from the “bad people out there.” In Steven Zailian’s script, Dolores responds “You weren’t a bad father. We were just afraid of you.” But Dolores doesn’t say those lines in the finished film. Instead, she tells Frank that they couldn’t come to him for protection as children “because of the terrible things that you would do” — calling back to that very first scene with Frank and Peggy at the grocery store some three hours before. The conversation between Frank and Dolores ends with an unanswered question. Frank tries to apologize and asks “Can I do anything now to make it up to you?” This time, Dolores is the one who has nothing to say.
Peggy might have left Frank’s life in August of 1975, but she doesn’t leave The Irishman at that point. She makes two more appearances after that scene. The final time they appear together onscreen, at Frank’s second wife’s funeral, Peggy won’t even look at Frank.
A few minutes earlier, the older Frank walks into the bank where Peggy works and tries to apologize and start a conversation with her. Without a word, Peggy gets up from her desk and walks away. As she leaves, Frank pleads, “Peggy. Peggy. I just want to talk.”
Clearly, some viewers want Peggy to talk too, maybe in some kind of big speech denouncing her father and his wicked ways. But talking with Frank would give him exactly what he wants — and what he clearly does not deserve — namely the satisfaction of closure and the ability to convince himself that he wasn’t a terrible dad before he dies. If Peggy once stayed silent to protect herself, remaining silent in The Irishman’s devastating final moments is her ultimate act of revenge.
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