Motherless Brooklyn is a passion project for writer/director/star Edward Norton. In adapting Jonathan Lehem’s novel, he’s created a gripping, atmospheric, rich stew of a film; a noir conspiracy thriller with roots in highly fictionalised fact. More on that in a bit.
Set in 1950s New York, the plot concerns a lonely New York private investigator with Tourette’s Syndrome, Lionel Essrog (Norton). After the murder of his boss (also his mentor and closest friend), Essrog starts poking around in what got him killed. In doing so Essrog uncovers a web of lies, greed, and more murder, with potentially suspicious links to power crazed city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). Along the way, he is drawn to activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman as lonely as he is. But in classic noir style, she has a dark secret of her own.
Although this is definitely a labour of love for Norton (recalling his greatest performances in the likes of Fight Club and Primal Fear), the rest of the cast get plenty of opportunity to chew melodramatic scenery, especially Baldwin. Mbatha-Raw is wonderful, and other memorable supporting turns include the likes of Willem Dafoe, Bobby Canavale, and Bruce Willis.
Everything from Dick Pope’s cinematography to Daniel Pemberton’s inspired jazz score underlines Norton’s vivid direction, which immerses the viewer in the period to terrific effect. I’ve not read the novel on which this is based, but the Chandler-esque narration not only ticks all the right hard-boiled noir boxes, but also generates sympathy for Norton’s singular PI, especially with the reactions generated by his medical affliction. Most poignant of all is when we learn of his backstory – and the backstory of his colleagues – all of whom came together to start their PI business after bonding as children amid a decidedly unpleasant Catholic orphanage. This backstory becomes increasingly relevant as the story unfolds.
The story also reveals the deeply alarming (and racist) Machiavellian machinations of city planning in New York. Moses Randolph is a character inspired by the late New York city planner Robert Moses, whose controversial schemes are reflected in the narrative. After watching this, I did some of my own research into Moses, and it was very interesting to see that although lauded as a hero by some, the darker side of his legacy still lingers. According to Norton, he essentially got away with his racist plans.
At any rate, regardless of the historic facts that inspired it, this is a terrific, hugely absorbing film that has been somewhat underrated by critics and sadly ignored by audiences. I was often reminded me of Chinatown, and that is a comparison I do not make lightly. At any rate, I suspect its reputation will grow in years to come, but in the meantime, I urge you to join me and become one of the smug few who saw Motherless Brooklyn in the cinema during the original release.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Violence, swearing