Motherless Brooklyn (3 stars)

Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton's well-cast passion project is an intriguing but flawed noir

Motherless Brooklyn has been a labour of love for Edward Norton. He is the writer, director, star and co-producer of a project that he has nurtured to fruition over the past two decades. This is not a slavish adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's novel, as Norton has chosen to relocate the story from the late 1990s to the 1950s, and a tipping point in the life of New York.

The 50s setting seems more conducive to a noirish, private-eye mystery that apes the convoluted storytelling of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. It readily embraces the all-too familiar cliches of the genre – from hardboiled tough guys to vulnerable femme fatales, treacherous partners and city wheeler-dealers who have placed themselves above the law.

Norton's Lionel Essrog is a Philip Marlowe-style gumshoe with all the involuntary physical tics and verbal gymnastics of Tourette's syndrome. Initially, it is a challenge not to find the character a distraction. When his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) is shot, Lionel sets out to discover why, wading into a tale of deep-rooted corruption with strong echoes of Chinatown.

Cinematographer Dick Pope creates an atmospheric sense of period, conveyed in smoky Harlem jazz clubs, morning mist clinging to the Brooklyn Bridge and Edward Hopper-esque visions of gloomy bars. Norton has surrounded himself with a fine cast that includes a bullish Alec Baldwin as the autocratic Moses Randolph and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rose, a young lawyer at the mercy of the era's racism and sexism.

There are a lot of intriguing elements in Motherless Brooklyn, especially the social history, but the central mystery isn't really one of them. The laconic narration, predictable twists and corny dialogue all combine to weigh the film down, and convince you that Norton has just spread himself too thin here.

General release from Fri 6 Dec.

Motherless Brooklyn

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • 2h 24min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Edward Norton
  • Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin
  • UK release: 6 December 2019

Lionel Essrog (Norton, who also adapted, directed and co-produced) is a Marlowe-style gumshoe with all the physical and verbal tics of Tourette’s syndrome, who sets out to discover why his boss Frank (Willis) has been shot. Despite a strong cast, the predictable twists and corny dialogue let it down.