Motherless Brooklyn – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe
In cinemas December 6th
Edward Norton wears many hats here not only directing and starring but also writing the screenplay and co producing. To say it’s a passion project for him is something of an understatement. He has wanted to make this movie since reading the 1999 book of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. While the book was set in contemporary times Norton has transposed it back to 1957.
He takes on the role of a private detective with Tourette syndrome Lionel Essrog. Rescued from an orphanage by his boss Frank (Willis), who nicknamed him the Motherless Brooklyn of the title, his condition can make life difficult but his photographic memory makes him a good investigator. When Frank is killed while working on a secret case Lionel vows to find out who was responsible for the death of his friend and mentor. But his enquiries soon lead him down a rabbit hole of political and planning corruption, buried family secrets and contract killings putting his own life in danger.
This film has a lot to say and a huge amount of sub-plots all running in tangent with the main story. Norton seems to be trying to include all the elements of the book he loved so much and as such it wanders off down plot side streets, making it somewhat confusing at times. He is trying to make statements about urban development, gentrification, inequality, race relations and discrimination and there is a lot going on all the time.
The score is definitely a co-star here. There are very few moments of the film that it doesn’t permeate and it really helps set the atmosphere and tone. Norton was seemingly trying to make a modern noir and as such this is very dark and brooding throughout.
Norton gives a fantastic performance as Lionel and the premise of the character is a really interesting one but many of the other characters are quite one dimensional. Particularly Willis as Frank who is your typical clichéd “gumshoe” (he’s even referred to by that term in the movie) and Alec Baldwin as the antagonist in charge of city planning Moses Randolph, is one twirling moustache away from being Dick Dastardly. As often happens with such a large and impressive cast many of them get swallowed up and don’t get a chance to shine and that is definitely the case here.
This is very stylish but sometimes confusing film and requires a lot of focus from the audience. It has several pacing issues and its dense subject matter won’t be to everyone’s taste either. However, if you stick with it, it also has much to commend it. It’s not a modern noir classic but it does bode well for Norton’s future film making efforts if he can just reign in the tangents.