Edward Norton, one of the finest actors of his generation, has been largely off our screens these past few years. Now comes the reason why – as he realises his long-held ambition to bring Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn to the screen. Norton got the rights 20 years ago, shortly before he directed his first film, the religious rom-com Keeping The Faith, but this second attempt behind the camera is a vastly different experience.
Relocating Lethem’s contemporary story to the 1950s, Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a detective who suffers from Tourette syndrome, an affliction he describes as like “having glass in my brain.” Yet while he can’t control his outbursts – although the occasional puff of weed seems to calm him down – he’s smart and won’t give up. Particularly when it comes to solving the twisted vlues that led to his boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) being gunned down in the street.
It soon emerges that Frank was on the tail of a young woman, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who works alongside Cherry Jones’ campaigner in the fight against slum clearance and gentrification in New York’s poorer neighbourhoods. On the flip side is Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry city planner who will stop nothing in his schemes to renovate the boroughs. Also on hand is Willem Dafoe’s unhinged engineer, who seems to have it in for Randolph.
Like the woollen jumper Lionel picks at in the film’s opening scene, pulling at one thread leads to everything unravelling, and Norton – just – keeps us in the loop with a dense and devilish story. With so much of the plot set around the jazz clubs of Harlem – The Wire’s Michael K. Williams can also be glimpsed as a trumpet player – Norton cuts it all to a throbbing under-your-skin score from Daniel Pemberton.
Intriguingly, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke can also be heard with a new composition, mournful piano ballad ‘Daily Battles’, a phrase that seems to sum up Lionel’s constant internal conflicts in his own head. One telling use of Yorke’s song takes us into a psychological fantasy sequence – unusual for film noir – as we glimpse Lionel immersed in gloomy water.
While Motherless Brooklyn is a little overlong at 144 minutes, there’s something pleasurable about watching Norton and co. duke it out in this old-fashioned mood piece. The calibre of the cast is first-rate – even the likes of Leslie Mann and Bobby Canavale pay their dues in small roles – and the plot, if you can wade through it, resonates deeply in today’s Trump-ruled America.
Motherless Brooklyn opens on 6 December. For more details, visit here.
1. Stills from Motherless Brooklyn.