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Monday, November 18, 2019


(Edward Norton)

If you loved Roman Polanski’s detective masterpiece, “Chinatown”, you’ll feel right at home with Edward Norton’s 20-year labour of love. (8/10 Review by Patrick Compton)

It would be hard to find a film quite like this long, brooding detective drama, written, directed and starring Edward Norton. At 144 minutes, Motherless Brooklyn is probably too long for modern appetites, and its plot does digress on occasion, but in general I found it an absorbing, beautifully shot noir drama with a tremendous central performance from Norton himself.

Based on the 1999 best-selling novel by Jonathan Lethem, Norton has shifted the film back in time to 1957 because of the hard-boiled dialogue which, he says, makes that period a more appropriate setting for the action.

Norton plays the fascinating and unusual Lionel Essrog, an idiosyncratic member of a small detective agency in New York who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. This is a nervous disorder that causes people to make sudden movements or sounds, called tics, that they can't control. For example, someone with Tourette’s may blurt out words they don't intend to say. Although Lionel suffers from this – a problem often played for sympathetic laughs – he also has a photographic memory and the kind of analytic brain that are the perfect requirements for a successful detective.

The movie has a fairly complex narrative, but the plot’s central plank is the murder of Lionel’s boss (a vivid cameo from Bruce Willis), Frank, who falls foul of some (initially) mysterious thugs attached to the New York municipality. Lionel, an obsessive, is determined to find out why his mentor was killed.

This compulsion leads him slowly down the main road, with pauses for a number of digressions down some narrative side streets. This leaves plenty of time for airing issues like the clearing of slums, the gentrification of suburbs and corruption in high places.

For some, this may require powers of patience that they don’t possess, but I was totally sucked into the world that Norton has created, including superb production design. The actor-director receives expert help from cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr Turner) who shoots Brooklyn and Harlem in beautiful greys and browns and musical director Wynton Marsalis who provides a memorably jazzy score.

Aside from Norton, whose character knits the film together, there are strong performances from Alec Baldwin as a ruthless, visionary town planner, Gugu Mbatha Raw, who gives a magnetic portrait of a black lawyer and activist, and Willem Dafoe as the opposite side to Baldwin’s dark coin. There’s also Peter Gray Lewis as the sort of mayor you want to hurl rotten fruit at.

Motherless Brooklyn – once Lionel’s nickname – is a dark, witty, intelligent drama that combines a classic gumshoe narrative with the kind of political issue that still has contemporary relevance, namely the destruction of so-called “slum” communities, primarily occupied by poor African-Americans, to make way for upper middle-class neighbourhoods.

Motherless Brooklyn is currently showing at the Gateway cinema complex in Durban. – Patrick Compton