‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is a Sleek Old-Fashioned Noir Decades in the Making

Warner Bros. Pictures

Edward Norton had been trying to make an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Motherless Brooklyn for over 20 years. This is truly his passion project, and it shows in the glossy visuals and meticulous approach. Despite numerous setbacks completing the script, lawsuits, and an on-set fire, Edward Norton—writer, director, and star—nevertheless persisted. Rather than make a straightforward adaptation of the gritty film noir set in the 1980s, Norton places the story in the 1950s. This not only allows the potboiler dialogue and shadowy characters to flourish, but most importantly emphasises the story’s timelessness and adds a social heft to the themes of racism, class, and marginalised people on the fringes of society. 

Norton stars as Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective with Tourette’s syndrome—he blurts out obscenities, free association rhymes, and inner thoughts he’d rather not divulge that is a strange blessing for his profession, allowing him to be underestimated by others as mentally incompetent while secretly giving him the power to remember minute details and conversations word-for-word. Although the idea of a serious, Oscar-nominated actor playing someone with a disability sounds offensive, Norton’s subtle and moving performance keeps his portrayal of Lionel from entering Simple Jack territory. Lionel goes on a mission to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). He pounds the pavement, scouring jazz clubs and the slums of Harlem and Brooklyn, only to uncover a knotted web of secrets and corruption from the city’s highest officials. 

Warner Bros. Pictures

During his investigation he meets and falls for Laura Rose, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an activist lawyer who works for Gabby Horowitz fighting urban renewal, when poor and minority neighbourhoods are bought out and demolished. Mbatha-Raw’s measured performance brings her passionate, sharp, and driven character to life. She also has a fiery chemistry with Norton and looks absolutely radiant in the period costuming. But it is Laura Rose’s strength and fervour for community advocacy that elevates her above the typical film noir character tropes of femme fatale or cursory love interest. 

Lionel’s zealous sleuthing leads to the megalomaniac Moses Randolph based on the prolific developer Robert Moses who led 250,000 people, mostly minorities, to lose their homes in order for him to build newer ones for more affluent residents. His aim was to transform the architecture of the city into a splendid metropolis for the wealthy and to drive out the poor and people of colour. This makes Motherless Brooklyn a poignant allegory for the Trump era, made all the more obvious by the casting of Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph. Often, Baldwin seems to be playing a watered-down version of his Saturday Night Live impression, but he aptly portrays his villain’s flippantly sinister nature. 

At almost two-and-a-half hours, Motherless Brooklyn is lengthy, but it rarely loses its intensity. The film requires attentiveness and concentration, but overall it is an engrossing dark maze. Norton uses the aesthetic framework of film noir with Daniel Pemberton’s hard-edged jazz score and cinematographer Dick Pope’s evocative gray tones, but he infuses his film with a contemporary sensibility. His sincere, hyper-stylised approach is both lovingly old-fashioned and refreshingly modern, crafting an impressive and thoroughly riveting mystery. 

Motherless Brooklyn is now available to rent on VOD

by Caroline Madden

Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day AfternoonBaby It’s YouInside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. 

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