Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Letham, has clearly been a labour of love for actor, Edward Norton. He’s been trying to put a movie version together for something like fifteen years now and, finally, here’s the result. As well as starring as lead character Lionel Essrog, Norton has gone ‘the full Orson Welles,’ serving as screenwriter, executive producer and director. He’s transposed the novel’s setting from the 1990s to the 1950s, an astute move, as the look and feel of the film is most definitely noir. Dick Pope’s bleak cinematography evokes memories of some of the great movies in this genre, particularly Chinatown.
Lionel is working for a small-time detective agency in New York. When we join the action, he and Gilbert (Ethan Supplee) are watching out for their boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has an important meeting with some powerful people and has asked his employees to covertly back him up.
The meeting goes spectacularly wrong and Frank winds up with a bullet in his gut. As a result, Lionel finds himself following up on Frank’s recent cases, one of which has him following Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist and daughter of a local jazz club owner. Lionel is able to call on some pretty special skills, as he has an uncanny ability to recall everything that’s ever been said to him. He also has a tendency to blurt out seemingly unconnected utterances at random moments – it’s probably Tourette’s syndrome but, this being the 1950s, his condition doesn’t yet appear to have a name.
As Lionel digs deeper into the case, he comes up against ruthless property developer, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also Randolph’s mysterious, down-at-heel critic, Paul (Willem Dafoe). But what do these two men have to do with Laura? And will the unravelling of the case prove dangerous for both her and Lionel?
Motherless Brooklyn is a curiously old-fashioned concoction, one that takes its own sweet time to roll out its labyrinthine story, but Norton, in what is only his second attempt at directing a movie (his first was Keeping the Faith in 2000) has done a pretty good job of pulling the various narrative strands into a satisfying whole. His performance is pitch perfect and he’s helped by a stellar supporting cast. Baldwin is particularly good as the decidedly Trumpian Randolph, a dead-eyed, frost-hearted megalomaniac with no scruples whatsoever, while Mbatha-Raw dazzles like an orchid in the drab heart of 50s America. I like the way Lionel’s disability is handled (it feels very convincing, just a part of who he is, ordinary to those who know him) and I also enjoy the film’s refusal to tie its storylines up with easy resolutions. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the jazz score, a style of music that usually repels me, works brilliantly here, as does a haunting piece by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
This won’t be for everyone, but those with an enduring love of film noir will find plenty here to savour – and Norton deserves much credit for his tenacity in seeing this slow-gestating project through to the end.