Motherless Brooklyn review: a brilliant, multi-faceted noir with the composure of an Edward Hopper painting (2024)

Dir: Edward Norton; Starring: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Michael K Williams, Bobby Cannavale, Bruce Willis. 15 cert, 144 mins.

The best film noirs aren’t merely mysteries, but excavations – long, dark digs that break open the bone vaults of the past to find the roots of a present unease. Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is just such a film. It slinks through the shadows of late-1950s New York with its collar pulled up against the cold, joining the dots in a conspiracy that’s as intimate and current as it is bygone and vast, while The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown swirl in its unquiet mind.

Norton, who wrote, directed and stars, freely adapted the screenplay from a 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem, though his plot bears little resemblance to Lethem’s, which was set in the (then) present and featured a bizarre conspiracy involving sea urchins. The only thing ported across from the text intact is its lead character: Lionel Essrog, a private eye with Tourette’s syndrome whose “head full of broken glass” turns over clues as obsessively and creatively as it does words.

Lionel is a classic Norton role – a human jigsaw piece you gradually realise you’ve been looking at upside down all along – and his performance is both deeply felt and carried off with astonishing technical prowess. (It’s incredible how quickly Lionel’s Tourettic tics– which aren't profanities, but involuntary, freewheeling riffs on words that get stuck in his brain–just become part of the character’s texture.)

Yet the film is not an actor’s showcase – or not justone of those, at least. Norton may loom large in the credits, but Lionel is a tiny morsel of a figure on an urban landscape that often feels as if it’s about to hinge up around him and swallow him alive.

You can almost sense the city licking its lips when Lionel witnesses the murder of his boss and mentor Frank Minna –a rare role of value for Bruce Willis – who is shot during a meeting with some mysterious but clearly unsavoury types. Following the meagrest of leads and his best gumshoe instincts, Lionel finds himself repeatedly drawn to some seemingly unrelated figures.

One is Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), an ambitious, autocratic town planner modelled on New York’s real-life postwar master builder Robert Moses, but who also trails a distinct top note of Trump. Another is a bearded crank played by Willem Dafoe –an initially unidentified thorn in Randolph’s side. A third is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a lawyer and community activist from Harlem, and by no means a conventional femme fatale, whose ex-soldier father (Robert Wisdom) owns a buzzy Harlem jazz joint: this, too, is also somehow umbilically linked to Minna’s fate.

Lionel’s investigation quickly turns into a puzzle that seems to encircle the entire city, and is often (perhaps intentionally) hard to follow in the way the plots of the chewiest noirs often are. But Norton takes his time with it; leaves space to let the details breathe.

There is a glorious sequence in which Lionel and Laura listen to a Miles Davis-esque trumpeter performing on stage at the club –he’s played with taciturn magnetism by Michael K Williams, though the notes are being blown on the soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis – and it’s as if you’re right there with them, enveloped in the music and the smoke. The outstanding, jazz-infused score by Daniel Pemberton is so poised and spare, you can feel the wind blowing through it.

The film has old-fashioned crowd-pleasing instincts, and is more interested in playing with noir than pushing it through a sieve: Norton hasn’t set out to make another Inherent Vice, or Under the Silver Lake. It is also a brilliant, multi-faceted portrait of urban loneliness.

Scenes are composed and lit like Edward Hopper paintings, while the plot lays bare the insidious ways in which division and alienation can be sewn into a place’s very fabric. It took Norton two decades to get Motherless Brooklyn made, and the result is a film that’s wondrously out of time: one in which the hero isn’t out to save the world, just understand it.

Subscriber reward: Click here to save up to 40% on tickets at more than 250 cinemas across the UK

Motherless Brooklyn review: a brilliant, multi-faceted noir with the composure of an Edward Hopper painting (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Msgr. Refugio Daniel

Last Updated:

Views: 6544

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (74 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Msgr. Refugio Daniel

Birthday: 1999-09-15

Address: 8416 Beatty Center, Derekfort, VA 72092-0500

Phone: +6838967160603

Job: Mining Executive

Hobby: Woodworking, Knitting, Fishing, Coffee roasting, Kayaking, Horseback riding, Kite flying

Introduction: My name is Msgr. Refugio Daniel, I am a fine, precious, encouraging, calm, glamorous, vivacious, friendly person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.