Motherless Brooklyn review: a slow burning treat

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Edward Norton’s 20 year journey to bringing Motherless Brooklyn to the screen is complete – and it’s been worth it.

A quietly absorbing slow-burn 50s detective yarn, Motherless Brooklyn finds Edward Norton writing, producing, directing and starring in the screen adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel. It’s an adaptation that reportedly makes notable changes from the text, not least in its setting. But for those of us – like me – who come to it without reading the book, the film’s closest comparison is to L.A. Confidential. Norton plays private investigator Lionel Essrog, a man with Tourette’s syndrome working for Bruce Willis’s Frank Minna. Following an electric early car chase, though, the mystery that Minna is working on becomes of prime interest to Lionel, who – as he peels back its layers – discovers a corruption that underpins New York politics. Leading all the way to city development boss Moses Randolph.

Backed up by a jazz score and shot beautifully by Dick Pope, the film takes a little while to settle into. But as it patiently puts its pieces in place, it starts to exude a confidence that’s easy to enjoy and admire. Since it’s willing to take its time in unravelling its story, you get a generous running time – just shy of two-and-a-half hours – and whilst the pacing isn’t always effective, I was still left feeling that Norton had struggled to fit in everything. He’s cast his movie superbly, which papers over one or two of its narrative cracks. Baldwin is a smart choice for a start, his oily political figure having something of the Glengarry Glen Ross about him. Furthermore, Mbatha-Raw is compelling in the role of Laura, and there’s the trump card of Willem Dafoe too.

It does feel like a movie a little out of its time, and the immediate box-office returns in the US suggest there won’t be another of its ilk along in a hurry. But that would be a shame. Norton directs well, his central performance is typically strong, and his commitment to putting a slow-burn neo-noir film on the big screen is really admirable. If you’re willing to invest in it early, you’ll find the film rewarding.

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