Motherless Brooklyn Review TIFF 2019

The Plot

A lonely detective suffering from Tourette’s syndrome sets out to unravel the mystery behind his mentor’s murder, setting his sharp wits and determination against powerful men and the rampant criminal corruption of 1950s New York.

The Good

Edward Norton is on typically accomplished form playing the reluctantly heroic Lionel, a complex figure far more layered and nuanced than the usual cliché gumshoe. Norton’s method acting acumen allows him to authentically portray the character’s Tourette’s syndrome in a way that avoided either sensationalising of trivialising the affliction. Although there is certainly a very familiar trope of detectives being gifted/cursed with unique mental faculties, Norton manage to carve out something unique with his performance.

Norton as a director has managed to leverage his own acting pedigree to help assemble a supporting cast packed full of noteworthy character actors and familiar stars. Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis, Bobby Cannavale and Alec Baldwin being some of the instantly recognisable talents breathing life into the murky cesspool of 1950s New York.

Alec Baldwin in particular spars very well with Norton whenever the pair square off on screen. Baldwin exudes a genuinely menacing aura as a bullish and unrepentant tycoon of extreme means and power. The contrast between his unapologetic bullying ways and the current day climate of endless recriminations against so called ‘toxic masculinity’ is fascinating.

The look and sound of the film is another massively attractive attribute. The forlorn beauty of Daniel Pemberton’s score combined with a sepia tinted vision of a vintage era of New York gives the film an extra emotional dimension and pleasing personality.

Edward Norton deserves special praise for not only delivering yet another credible leading man performance but for also directing such a well-polished technical production.

The Bad

Motherless Brooklyn for all its pleasing soundtrack, competent performances and polished production value doesn’t quite succeed in doing anything truly original with a persistently popular genre. Scratching beneath the veneer of the ensemble acting talents on show reveals a fairly straightforward plot.

For all the films undeniably appealing qualities it can’t quite secure its status alongside some of true genre classics like The Big Sleep The Third Man or LA Confidential. Although Motherless Brooklyn is an enjoyable and rewarding watch, it isn’t perhaps as memorable or endlessly re-watchable as the finest detective dramas can be.

The Ugly Truth

Motherless Brooklyn is a sincerely crafted love letter to both detective dramas and an iconic era in New York history. Edward Norton juggles method acting and directing with evident skill, achieving much success on screen. A hauntingly melodic soundtrack, stellar supporting cast and Norton’s star turn will all reward audience.

Review by Russell Nelson

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