Based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn has been adapted by Edward Norton for screen, in which he also stars, produces and directs. This is very much a labour of love for Norton, who hasn’t directed since 2000’s Keeping the Faith. While Lethem’s book was set in the 90s, Norton has written it to be set in 1950s America, a time when people were still recovering from not only the war but still reeling from the 1929 Great Depression.
The film focuses around Lionel Essrog (Norton), a private eye who also has Tourettes, a disorder which not only gives him involuntary tics but also gives him a distinct intelligence and focus when it comes to collecting facts and remembering important information, obviously vital in his line of work. After his boss and mentor Frank, played by Bruce Willis (who fits this genre perfectly, much like he did in Sin City), is murdered, Lionel makes it his duty to find out what happened. While he might only have a few snippets of information and clues to work from, the way his mind works means he senses there’s something beneath the surface worth digging out.
Motherless Brooklyn really sets the visual mood with effortless perfection, cinematographer Dick Pope (whose talent for a ‘real’ touch is more than present in his work with Mike Leigh over the decades), brings forth a terrifically dark, authentic and dirty New York. This setting offers all the hallmarks of those classic detective stories, in the veins of Dashiell Hammett and film noir, but while it really does have the right things going for it, and feels out of its time, it oddly suffers from an unusual disconnection that doesn’t quite pull you fully in for a while, as if you’re watching from afar but not quite feeling anything to begin with.
This element may well be down to the huge scope of the story and, especially early on, there’s a distinct separation between it being compelling, and you trying to take in every character and narrative thread. What’s odd though is that this isn’t a ‘busy’ film, in any regard, it’s finely tuned to the era, it looks outstanding and the quality of the ensemble cast surrounding Norton’s lead is truly impressive but it’s not until we get into the deep bones of the story, that we really start to side with Lionel, understand his quest and want for more.
Some of that ‘from afar’ feeling may stem from an underdevelopment of smaller characters around Lionel’s day-to-day world, they’re meant to be important in his life but if they get beaten or people die, we don’t really feel much or see much of a reaction. However, the key parts are done well, and when you’ve got the fine talent of the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Fisher Stevens, Alec Baldwin and Willem Dafoe involved in key roles, well, you’ve got something impressive.
Due to its setting, Motherless Brooklyn is also blessed with an evocative score/soundtrack throughout, it’s clear that the music is an important part of every tone and emotion. Daniel Pemberton‘s compositions entwining with an earthy-jazz-fuelled world, including the outstanding Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, plus original work from Thom Yorke, it’s definitely worth picking up in its own right.
There’s nothing bad here, it’s very watchable, but it is not until the later stages when you really start to feel the characters and want the best outcome for Lionel in his search for justice and the truth. A huge, sweeping story with all the gravitas of a classic detective story. This labour of love is also a love letter to the source material and all the everyday people fighting for the right outcome, and I’m sure we can all related to that.