MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN gets 6.5/10 An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man

Directed by Edward Norton

Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw


Edward Norton’s gumshoe tale deserves respect for its sheer ambition. The film is a neo-noir crime drama which follows the plight of a private investigator, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome, who is bent on avenging the murder of his friend and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).

Since he read Jonathon Lethem’s novel, the film became Norton’s passion project, and he has written, produced, directed and starred in it – the project taking almost 20 years to come to screen.

Norton has copped a lot of criticism for setting his adaption of Motherless Brooklyn in the 50s as opposed to the novel’s modern-day setting. However, this decision illustrates how much vision and control Norton had over his product, as he delivers a story of post-war America that gets to the heart of the genre while speaking to the present day. The traditional gumshoe plot doesn’t really lend itself to a modern environment. It’s impossible to watch this story of corruption unfold without thinking that if it occurred in a more current setting, the antagonist Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) would not have bothered with any of the conspiracies to conceal his explosive secret which drives the entire plot. For this story to work, you need a world where revelations of wrongdoing matter to those in power, making Norton’s interpretation a logical one.

The film received mixed reviews following its release in America, criticised for its nearly two and a half hour run time and somewhat distracting storyline. Initially, the plot and characters feel too plastic and superficial for a noir flick. It lacks the angst and emotional depth of genre staples like Blade Runner or Fargo, but as the film progresses, the characters – particularly Norton’s – have such a level of charm and intrigue that you can’t help but become invested.

The central character is well-understood by Norton. Lionel’s tics and general awkwardness serve as a constant reminder that he is an outsider, and Norton is riveting throughout. The way in which he deals with Tourette’s is fascinating. He gives a convincing performance, that portrays a man with undeniable talent and drive. He contends with limiting factors beyond his control, factors which have made him lonely and marginalised from the very start of the film.

Every year we get films like this that think they’re something more than they are. Sounds harsh, but that doesn’t make Motherless Brooklyn a bad film. It’s certainly impressive, however the payoff is not as impactful as it might hope. As Norton’s second time in the director’s chair, it is a commendable effort, and is certainly worth a theatrical watch if you can find one that’s still open for business.