‘Motherless Brooklyn’ review: Edward Norton returns with a hard-boiled detective thriller that’s worth investigating

In his first lead role in nine years, Edward Norton solves mysteries in smoky jazz clubs while wreathed in cigarette smoke

If you spend your Sunday afternoons curled up in front of old black-and-white movies, Motherless Brooklyn will probably be right up your street. It’s an old-fashioned film, which is not meant as any sort of insult. It takes its sweet time, prizes character over action and lots of people wear hats.

This is only the second film directed by Edward Norton (his first, Keeping The Faith, was in 2000 and was only OK), but it does not feel like the work of a filmmaker still learning the ropes. It’s confident and elegantly detailed.

Based on a 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn is centred on the very unattractively named Lionel Essrog (Norton). Essrog is a private investigator who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. His affliction means most people write him off, even most of those he works with. One of the few people who believes in him is his boss, Frank (Bruce Willis). When Frank is killed on a job, Essrog vows to find his murderer and wades his way into a mess of governmental corruption and racism in New York.

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The book was set in contemporary Brooklyn, but Norton shifts the setting back in time to 1957, a very smart choice for two reasons. One, all the hard-boiled dialogue and shadowy sleuthing works much better in an older setting, where Essrog can’t just use Google to solve his case. Two, it looks incredibly handsome. This is one good-looking film, seeming far more expensive than its £20m budget.

The story is doled out with a very casual eye on the running time. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it could easily have chopped out half an hour, but it wouldn’t be as good. Part of its effectiveness is in the time spent sitting in smoky bars or old diners, watching New York go about its secretive business. It needs time to let everything marinate in subway steam and cigarette smoke.

As a mystery, it’s not especially surprising. The double-crossers are exactly who you’d imagine and the villain’s motives are probably roughly what you might guess, but it doesn’t matter all that much. The pleasure of this is in the atmosphere and the world-beaten characters. Much of it takes place in jazz clubs, which feels right for its mood. Like jazz, you don’t always know what’s happening or whether there will ultimately be any point, but it’s all so enveloping that you don’t especially mind. 

Details

  • Director: Edward Norton
  • Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin
  • Release Date: 6 December 2019
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