Motherless Brooklyn features a 'striking, meticulous performance' from director and star Edward Norton

A private detective (Edward Norton) investigates the murder of his mentor in the 1950s-set thriller Motherless Brooklyn. Georgia Humpreys watches...

Edward Norton (left) wrote, directed and produced Motherless Brooklyn, which also stars Willem Dafoe
Georgia Humphreys

"POWER is knowing that you can do whatever you want, and not one person can stop you."

That's a line uttered by ambitious developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who plans to reshape New York City in the timely crime thriller Motherless Brooklyn.

Identity, corruption and politics are themes at the heart of this slow-burning film written, directed, produced by and starring Edward Norton.

It has taken the Fight Club star 20 years to bring his passion project, based on Jonathan Lethem's landmark 1999 novel of the same name, to our screens. Interestingly, he's made the decision to scrap the original late 1990s setting in favour of the 1950s.

Norton plays the protagonist, Lionel Essrog, an orphaned kid growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn who is taken under the wing of private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).

Norton's striking, meticulous performance is the film's greatest strength.

The lonely figure has Tourette's syndrome, as he describes in an early voiceover: "I twitch and shout a lot. It makes me look like a damn freak show. But inside my head is an even bigger mess. I can't stop twisting things around, words and sounds especially. I have to keep playing with them until they come out right."

Lionel doesn't let his condition stand in the way of his job.

In fact, his obsessive personality, meticulous photographic memory and powers of pattern recognition make him a force to be reckoned with, especially after Minna dies on a job.

Lionel takes it upon himself to find out why – resulting in a deep dive into troubling political issues across the city.

It's impossible not to root for Lionel as his mission to honour Minna – the only person who has ever cared about him – takes us from Harlem's jazz clubs and Brooklyn's slums to the gilded halls of New York's power brokers.

Along the way, he meets alluring community activist Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Norton depicts Lionel's vulnerability with her just beautifully.

However, when Lionel unravels closely guarded secrets about Randolph – the most powerful man in the city – Laura is left in serious danger.

There's no denying that Motherless Brooklyn is starkly different from anything else I've seen lately but, tellingly, it isn't particularly memorable.

Perhaps that's because the plot becomes a little confusing so I wasn't as gripped as I'd hoped I would be.

Or maybe it's the length. At two hours, 24 minutes, it's quite a slog.

After the simple, yet hugely moving, final scene – suggesting that, sometimes, the Lionels of this world, the underdogs, the misfits, can find their way on their own – I left the cinema with a sense of hope.

In these times, surely that means Norton's film is worth a watch.

Rating: 6/10

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (15, 144 mins) Thriller. Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe. Director: Edward Norton

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