Film review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is currently showing at Burnley's Reel Cinema
Motherless Brooklyn is currently showing at Burnley's Reel Cinema

When I think of film noirs I think of classics such as “Stranger on the Third Floor” or “The Maltese Falcon”, both from the 1940`s when this subgenre of crime fiction first started to appear out of Hollywood.


They weren’t only murder mysteries or tough melodramas, as critics of the time called them, but a thorough excavation into the past to find the source of a present unease.

As a result this genre often presents the viewer with an imposing length, and “Motherless Brooklyn”, loosely based on author Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel by the same name, is no different on that front. It requires patience as it slowly slinks through the shadows of late-1950s New York with an odd combination of period crime and slapstick, but its unique perspective is entrancing and makes this a whodunit worth investigating.

The cars are boxy, the men wear fedoras and steam rises into the air from the manhole covers. Amidst the stylish, classy, smoky backdrops and an outstanding jazz-inspired score, the story focusses on Lionel Essrog/Brooklyn (played by Norton), a lonely private eye afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, consumed by grief following the murder of his mentor Frank Minna (Willis).

He`s the little guy who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong and like a loose string on a jumper he can’t stop pulling at, obsessively follows in Frank’s footsteps to find out not only who killed him but why.

Portraying a disability on screen is always a risk but in “American History X” and “Primal Fear” Norton has previous with taking on characters that appear broken without being the victim.

Here he manages to seamlessly turn Lionel`s condition into light-hearted background comedy whilst at the same time examining the complexity, struggle and eventual triumph of a character whose brain constantly contorts the simplest of words and thoughts into a complex puzzle.

Affairs, murder, shady business deals and family politics are all intertwined as he finds himself falling deep into the world of activist Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), curious local man Paul (Willem Dafoe) and the deliciously menacing Big Bad Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) channelling his inner Donald Trump).

He controls the construction of highways, bridges and parks in the city and someone as powerful as him shouldn’t care about a guy like Frank.

So why does he? That’s the million-dollar question.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is purely a detective story about our anti-hero protagonist battling his own verbal tics to avenge a dead friend. Edward Norton’s first directorial outing since “Keeping the Faith” some twenty years ago is far more than the corrupt politician,mobster and alluring femme fatale combination suggested in the trailer.

With nods to Robert Caro`s biography of Robert Moses “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” it’s also a tutorial on gentrification, civic corruption and institutuionalised racism.

This is a window into how things really worked in the Big Apple.

How that will play with today’s audience is anyone’s guess but this is genuine Oscar bait. The question is, will anybody bite?