Motherless Brooklyn review: Edward Norton’s underclass gumshoe takes Manhattan

Director-star Norton transfers Jonathan Lethem’s pulp noir and its Tourette’s-afflicted detective to a 1950s New York in which bigotry and injustice are rising in plain sight.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura Rose and Edward Norton as Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn

It may have taken Edward Norton almost two decades to get back behind the camera following his 2000 directorial debut Keeping the Faith, but it’s been worth the wait. That’s how long it took him to put together this adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn – for which he’s held the rights since publication – and the result is a sensitive, involving film that showcases Norton’s impressive range and eye for arresting detail, both as performer and director.

While Lethem’s story of a New York City private eye with Tourette’s syndrome takes place in the late 1990s, Norton has reworked it to a 1950s setting. It’s an inspired move, allowing him to focus on the compelling characters and twisting plot without needing to circumnavigate any issues that could arise from having modern New Yorkers act – and speak – in the heightened pulp style of the book.

This period setting also opens the door to obvious film noir territory, but while Norton leans heavily on some of noir’s finest traditions – organised criminals, hard-boiled dialogue – he also takes pleasure in subverting expectations. With a sensitive tone reminiscent of Jacques Audiard’s recent western The Sisters Brothers, his film brings an emotional nuance and vulnerability to a genre that historically trades in blunt-edged masculinity.

Nowhere is that more obvious than with private eye Lionel Essrog (Norton). Far from being the usual smart-talking gumshoe, he is a softly spoken Tourette’s sufferer whose condition has left him open to well-meaning jibes at best, abject cruelty at worst. He is the ‘motherless Brooklyn’ of the film’s title – a nickname bestowed on him by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), the beloved boss and mentor who shielded a young Lionel from the brutal anonymity of a Brooklyn orphanage and, later, put him to work in his detective agency.

The scars of childhood are borne in Lionel’s hunched demeanour, his painful self-awareness – he apologises repeatedly for his Tourette’s, attempts to drown his demons with the contents of numerous bottles – and the raw, howling grief he experiences when Minna is shot and killed after a clandestine meeting with shadowy city officials. Determined to track down the assassins, Lionel embarks on a twisting path that soon leads him into a tangled web of corruption and discrimination at the heart of City Hall.

Lionel may not have the swagger – although, as the film progresses, he seems to unfurl physically, Minna’s hat and sharply tailored overcoat pointedly replacing his own unravelling jumpers and lending him a striking silhouette – but he certainly has the smarts. That Lionel is often patronised and always underestimated is something he learns to use to his advantage, and he joins the dots of this entertaining, knotty mystery with increasing confidence. That the picture which emerges is of horrific racial discrimination masquerading as city planning gives the film a Trump-era resonance, while also making the uncomfortable point that the US is built on such institutional racism.

Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph with Norton

Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph with Norton

If Motherless Brooklyn’s success lies in the strength of its story, its performances are also key. After an initial in-car sequence establishes Lionel’s battle with Tourette’s – here, as throughout the film, his compulsion to shout and swear offers moments of comedy as well as tension – Norton sinks effortlessly into his performance. Inhabiting such a condition without melodrama or cliché, and without having it overwhelm the character, is no mean feat. It’s clear that Norton knows this material inside out; as a result, Lionel is more markedly defined by his intelligence, diligence and tenacity than by his affliction.

Norton is supported by an excellent cast who attune themselves to the slightly off-kilter beats of the narrative. Alec Baldwin is monstrous, rather than overly villainous, as Moses Randolph (a character created by Norton and based on ruthless real-life New York developer Robert Moses), whose personal hatred of black people is shaping the city in his own bigoted image. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is outstanding as Harlem native Laura Rose, a young woman campaigning to save her community, whose burgeoning kinship with Lionel brings home the difficult experiences of those living on the margins. Willem Dafoe is excellent in the small but crucial role of Randolph’s engineering genius brother Paul; so, too, is Michael K. Williams, as a trumpet player who offers Lionel a rare moment of understanding and insight.

Cinematographer Dick Pope’s painterly eye contrasts Manhattan’s gleaming spires and Harlem’s ragged slums and, later, emphasises the claustrophobia of the city by widening out and drinking in the expansive Long Island shoreline. This expert interplay between shadows and light – Randolph’s sun-drenched office, the night-time menace of the city’s back alleys – is mirrored by a moody, schizophrenic soundtrack, in which classic jazz from the likes of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus (curated by Wynton Marsalis) intertwine with an original song from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and score from Daniel Pemberton.

As Lionel is forced to confront his own demons, as well as those hidden in plain sight around him, the soundtrack segues from scratchy saxophones and discordant notes to smooth brass and comforting harmonies. Effectively underscoring the film’s themes of secrets and lies, it also immerses the audience in the inescapable mental tumult of Lionel’s Tourette’s, the unyielding depths of his past traumas and, finally, the relief – and release – of connecting with those who can see past his affliction to the man he is beneath.


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