Motherless Brooklyn review – Edward Norton's weighty labour of love

The actor returns to the director’s chair for a respectable if heavy-going adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling crime thriller

This film – an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling novel about a New York private detective with Tourette syndrome – is a labour of love from its writer-producer-director-star Edward Norton, as loving as it is laborious, maybe. Norton has been developing it for the screen pretty much since the book’s publication in 1999, and it is good to see him get it over the finish line.

Whatever its flaws, it is a substantial and distinctive drama, unlike anything in the cinema right now, although obviously like a lot of the gumshoe movies of yesteryear, such as The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown, with an element of a municipal graft picture like All The King’s Men – and this film’s producer, Warner Brothers, has been renowned for precisely this kind of gritty, violent picture since Hollywood’s golden age.

And all this is partly because Norton has taken the decision to change the late 1990s setting of the original novel and backdate it to the 1950s. There are plenty of beautiful, classic automobiles, cleaned and polished to a showroom gleam as such cars tend to be in the movies, and not dirty and scuffed-up the way they would be in real life. I regretted, in way, that Norton had not kept the original setting – watching this, I found myself remembering Rian Johnson’s Brick, a pastiche hard-boiled detective story set among modern-day high school students. But perhaps this is the kind of spoof effect that Norton wanted to minimise.

Norton plays Lionel Essrog, the detective with a tic that means he will convulsively yelp disjointed phrases, and jerk his head and grimace as if suddenly suppressing a huge yawn; Norton fabricates these mannerisms with care. But Lionel is also blessed with a superb memory and is good at his job. When his boss, friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is killed shadowing some scary individuals, his fellow private dicks Tony (Bobby Cannavale), Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) and Danny (Dallas Roberts) are shocked but resigned; Lionel is, however, convinced Frank was on the verge of blowing open a corrupt city hall conspiracy, involving the ethnic cleansing of black people from areas ripe for lucrative redevelopment. Obsessive-compulsive Lionel believes he can piece together the clues to this mystery, involving a ruthless politician (Alec Baldwin), a local malcontent (Willem Dafoe) and a smart community activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

And so the long odyssey through the big gaunt city begins, a city depicted in sombre dark greys and browns; an odyssey punctuated by Lionel and his colleagues getting nasty beatings from goons and being carried back to the office covered in bruises and blood. Lionel periodically visits a hip Harlem jazz club (to whose existence he is alerted by the time-honoured plot device of the discovered matchbook) where his preternatural Tourette gift for scatting along with the band is noticed by the musician Michael K Williams – whose instrument suffers a very specific fate, which may tip you off as to who this is supposed to be. It’s a film which piles up detail upon detail, incident upon incident, punch-up upon punch-up, all swirling in a smoky, sooty world. It all feels a bit opaque, although Alec Baldwin has a good, embittered speech right at the end. It’s a heavy meal to digest, but it is a strong, vehement film with a real sense of time and place.

  • Motherless Brooklyn is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 1 November and the UK on 29 November.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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