Thursday, December 05, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn – fighting to find the truth in 1950’s New York (from Friday 6 December)

Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of 1950’s New York private investigator Lionel Essrog who is chasing down clues and contacts to find out why his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) was ‘whacked’. It’s more whydunit than whodunit as he traces his way through city authorities and a corrupt slum clearance programme.

But there’s a sense that you get two films in one with Motherless Brooklyn. Aside from the mystery, it’s also a character study about an orphaned man with Tourette’s navigating his way through professional and personal relationships and longing for acceptance.

Producer, screenwriter, director and actor Edward Norton has been working on this passion project for more than a decade, backdating Jonathan Lethem’s novel to root it in a very noir 1950s. Daniel Pemberton’s relaxed jazz score accompanies the well told tale and the two and a half hour run time never drags. In fact, half way through, the action more or less pauses while we sit in a jazz club with Lionel and listen to a song from beginning to end. More films should have the confidence to do this!

“You come off weird, but you’re smart!”

Lionel’s physical and mental tics quickly become part of his charm and part of his investigative toolbox. His ability to disarm suspects and then utilise his photographic memory set him apart from the other guys left in the headless firm.

Alec Baldwin plays the wheeling and dealing Moses Randolph, an unelected self-styled tsar who controls much of the city’s development with a stern look backed up by bully boys to enforce his plans. Not a million miles away from the real-life figure of Robert Moses. Motherless Brooklyn really fits into the slew of films this year that get under the skin of mob and mafia organisations.

Undoubtedly male-heavy, for the first hour women are mostly bystanders in the story. Then Lionel finds Laura Rose, a campaigner fighting the gentrification and its racist undertones. Gugu Mbatha-Raw embraces the ambiguity that surrounds her character as the audience watch Lionel try to figure out how she fits into the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that he has been assembling.

The plot’s not without the occasional hole and the version of New York on show is rather sepia, but overall Motherless Brooklyn is a really enjoyable tale, centred around a likeable and eccentric character who reveals as much about his city as the crime he’s investigating.

Motherless Brooklyn opens in UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 6 December.

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