Motherless Brooklyn
3 stars
Director: Edward Norton
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis 
Duration: 144 mins
Class: 15
KRS Releasing Ltd

Acclaimed actor Edward Norton also wears the director, writer and producer’s hat in the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, a moody noir that sees Norton playing the role of Lionel Essrog. Essrog is an introverted private detective who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and finds himself embroiled in murder when his boss, mentor and friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) is killed.

Working off minimal clues and putting his obsessive nature to good use, Essrog moves closer to finding Minna’s killers, treading a path that passes through some of Harlem’s hottest jazz clubs via Brooklyn’s poorest slum areas up the completely corrupt higher echelons of power in the New York mayor’s office. Yet not even the highest-ranking men in city hall will stop Essrog from finding out the truth.

When taking on the task of bringing Motherless Brooklyn to the big screen, Norton made quite a few changes – primarily moving the book’s 1990s setting and taking the characters back to the 1950s, thereby giving the story and background a very noir-ish flavour. In fact, I was surprised to learn of the novel’s fairly contemporary setting, given that its storyline and characters are very typical of film noir.

To this end, Norton and his team have excelled in crafting a movie that oozes atmosphere with its excellent depiction of New York during that era, from the busy streets and crumbling houses of Brooklyn’s working class and mainly minority neighbourhoods, to the hallowed halls where powerful men nefariously plot and machinate. Kudos therefore to director of photography Dick Pope, editor Joe Klotz, production designer Beth Mickle, costume designer Amy Roth and composer Daniel Pemberton whose jazz infused score just ties it all up exquisitely.

An outcast who refers to himself as ‘freakshow’; a man whose condition causes nervous tics and verbal explosions

And yet, for all its visual and atmospheric beauty, Motherless Brooklyn struggles to engage with the viewer on a narrative level. At its core, it is a tale of dirty and deadly corruption in high places, born of illegal building permits and rampant construction with overtly racist tones, as the very few rich build up on their greed at the expense of entire neighbourhoods. Norton’s screenplay, coming in at two and a half hours, tends to meander leisurely through this complex narrative, with long scenes heavy on dialogue and short on action.

Essrog’s voiceover, meanwhile, does not fill in the gaps in the story, which would have been better served by showing, not telling. That said, I will concede that this raw example of art imitating life may have significantly coloured my enjoyment of the film.   

Moreover, it helps little that Motherless Brooklyn’s considerable ensemble of characters seem to serve the story and not the other way around. It’s an impressive cast, all of whom commit gamely to their roles and fit in seamlessly in the background Norton and his team have created, yet they fail to truly engage on an emotional level.

Essrog himself is a fascinating character – an outcast who refers to himself as ‘freakshow’; a man whose condition causes nervous tics and verbal explosions and whose intelligence is sometimes too much for him to handle. Certainly a different kind of hero, yet for all Norton’s skill in accurately portraying the physical traits of the man, he is less successful in getting under his skin and really letting us know what makes him, well, tick.

That applies to pretty much the rest of the ensemble. Willis strikes an elegant if enigmatic figure in his brief appearance, though we never quite get what made the relationship between Minna and his protégé so special. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a quiet yet strong presence as Laura, an activist and key figure in Essrog’s investigation, while Alec Baldwin is suitably bullish as Moses Randolph, the towering, threatening figure at the heart of the corruption that Essrog uncovers.