Motherless Brooklyn

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Motherless Brooklyn
dir-scr Edward Norton
prd Bill Migliore, Edward Norton, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Michael Bederman
with Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Dallas Roberts, Leslie Mann, Josh Pais
release US 1.Nov.19,
UK 6.Dec.19
19/US Warner 2h24

baldwin dafoe willis

mbatha-raw and norton
An ambitiously epic noir-style drama, this is a fine showcase for actor-filmmaker Edward Norton and his skilled costars and crew. Based on a 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, it's a twisty story of corruption in 1950s New York with a distinct gimmick: the protagonist is a brainy detective with Tourette's. Although this adds a rather nagging pretension that this beautifully made film never quite escapes.
Everyone underestimates private eye Lionel (Norton) because of his verbal-physical tics and obsessive methods. When his supportive boss/mentor Frank (Willis) is is killed, Lionel begins looking into the case he was working on, while his colleagues (Cannavale, Suplee and Roberts) continue with other things. Following clues, Lionel visits a Harlem jazz club, where he meets a beautiful woman (Mbatha-Raw). He also crosses paths with a powerful politician (Baldwin) and a shifty man (Dafoe) who seems to be lurking everywhere. And as Lionel digs deeper, more and more people try to stop him.
Skilfully shot by Dick Pope, the film creates the period in an earthy, immediate way, making terrific use of real locations. As a director, Norton orchestrates a vivid classic-movie vibe, giving each character his or her own proper introduction while maintaining mystery and suggestion. The snaky plot sometimes feels rushed, which is odd because the film has a languid pace that's refreshingly old school. Set pieces take time to develop, then immediately propel the quick-witted Lionel into the next perilous scenario.

Norton holds the attention with a committed performance that highlights Lionel's internal steeliness, making his tics an integral part of his personality, including the different way various people react to him. This creates electric connections between Lionel and each of the surrounding cast. Mbatha-Raw's role is a superb subversion of the usual femme fatale, while Baldwin and Dafoe lend some Hollywood weight to their beefy roles. And a range of side characters add colour and texture in each scene.

There's a striking relevance to the story's central theme about how power corrupts. And this comes through with a proper kick in the final act. But the route there sometimes feels a little circuitous, with a story that includes perhaps a few too many details and sideroads. Each scene is simply gorgeous, so it's understandable that Norton was reluctant to cut it. But a more driving sense of Lionel's journey would have made the film more engaging. Still, this is a skilfully told story packed with wonderful moments.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 21.Nov.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall