Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Canavale, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis, Michael Kenneth Williams
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Every now and then a film comes along where the care and craft combine to give it an instantly recognisable solidity and watchability.
Is there anything as satisfying as a well-made movie? Lovers of big, densely-plotted, period gangster films will want to settle back for this one. The film, based on the 1999 book by Jonathan Lethem (who co-wrote the screenplay with director/actor Edward Norton), tells the classic American story of city development, crime and politics bundled together. In fact, Motherless Brooklyn is something of a one man show for Edward Norton who not only directs here with great flair but gives one of his most complex screen portrayals.
The action takes place in 1950s New York, the city is growing and there’s huge money to be made in planning the transport corridors and building and redesigning (or obliterating) neighbourhoods. In this drama, there is one patriarch cum megalomaniac whose decisions seem to count most and to whom more and more power accrues. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin at his bellicose best) is already wealthy but mere money no longer interests him; now his more refined lust is power for power’s sake. Every residents’ organisation or individual citizen who gets in his way is regarded as a mere fly to swat.
At the other end of the scale is the humble private detective Lionel Essrog (Norton). Lionel is as organic to the city as Randolph. He was brought up an orphan and his mentor Frank Minna (a wonderful turn from Bruce Willis) nicknamed him ‘motherless Brooklyn’. Lionel has Tourette Syndrome but when he is not barking out repetitive nonsense, his mind is like a steel trap and he remembers everything that he hears. Norton makes much of Lionel’s verbal tics and mannerisms from the get-go, in a way that seems almost showy or excessively mannered, but such is the actor’s commitment to the portrayal that we come to love Lionel and find in his flaws all the more reason to root for him.
The film is densely plotted in a sort of ‘let’s lose everyone’, Maltese Falcon kind of way. This sometimes requires actors to devote whole scenes to expository dialogue about who is double crossing whom, but it is a very small flaw. The reliance on the Marlow-esque hard boiled dialogue/narration is another genre staple which could be over relied upon, but which is mostly sharp and literate and not too intrusive or contrived here.
Motherless Brooklyn is beautifully shot (great work from British DOP Dick Pope) and the period recreation is smoothly done, from the classic cars to the interiors and the great clothes. There is also a great jazz score from Daniel Pemberton and a complex role for the riveting Gugu Mbatha-Raw. All the elements combine to an accumulative effect. Like Randolph’s grand constructions, the film is built to last.
Every now and then a film comes along where the care and craft combine to give it an instantly recognisable solidity and watchability. LA Confidential might be a point of comparison. Polanski’s Chinatown is perhaps the granddaddy of them all. This one is a worthy addition to that pantheon.