Film Review – Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

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How did we get here? Growing up during the 80s, 90s and 2000’s, the plethora of different and varied films was immense. One week, you could be settling down with a potent drama the next watching the latest from Steve Martin or Jim Carrey, the next an action thriller that raced along at a million miles an hour, whilst the next would be a moving period piece that would pull at the heart strings and massage the mind. Now, in 2019, things are much different and the so-called “theme-park films” are taking over making it much more difficult to get films made, let alone wrestling for space in the local multiplexes.

Motherless Brooklyn, the second directorial effort from Edward Norton, is one of those films that are currently struggling for space, screaming at the top of its lungs to try to lure audiences in and get them to part with their well-earned pennies that are being reserved somewhat for said fairground attractions. It’s gross stateside of a mere $9million is more evidence that, when push comes to shove, general audiences aren’t turned on the same way that they once were. But they should because while this is an imperfect film, it’s certainly one that demands your attention much more than it has so far.

Adapted from the book by Jonathan Letham, Norton’s version takes the story out of its more modern-day setting and places it, somewhat ironically, back in time – the 1950s to be exact. Lionel (Norton), works for a detective agency and after his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) is killed in cold blood, he finds himself investigating the death and falling deeper into the world of city counselman Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and his connection to both Frank and local activist Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and curious local man Paul (Willem Dafoe). Shady business deals, affairs, murders and family politics are the topic of the day and Lionel has to navigate all of this whilst still trying to keep his Tourettes syndrome at bay.

There’s huge ambition in Motherless Brooklyn, the kind we seldom get to see these days, not through a lack of creative talent and voices, but simply that the studios these days just aren’t interested because such projects are deemed too risky, with little or no appetite for them with only financial disappointment – or, indeed, flat-out failure – staring back at them. But Norton, ever a risk-taker in his career thus far, isn’t bothered but such movements and by hook or by crook (and lots of favours), he’s made the film he wants and we can only thank him for taking the initiative to give us something wholly different to the monotony we are stuck in, for better or worse.

Performances are strong – with Norton and Mbatha-Raw excelling, ably supported but typical astute turns from Dafoe and Baldwin – whilst its setting, design and score of the film absolutely absorbing and harks back to a time when cinema was all about taking a leap, taking a chance to bring something truly remarkable to the big screen. It’s flawed, and it’s narrative doesn’t quite come together, largely due to its slackness, but Motherless Brooklyn should be held up high on a pedestal for all us movie lovers who, even though many of us love them, yearn for a few less goes on the rollercoaster.


Crime, Drama, Mystery | USA, 2019 | 15 | 6th December 2019 (UK) | Warner Bros. Pictures | Dir.Edward Norton | Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale