Norton Turns His Camera on New York's Dark Past

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 6, 2019 | Go to article overview

Norton Turns His Camera on New York's Dark Past


Byline: David Sexton

FILM OF THE WEEK Motherless Brooklyn Cert 15, 144 mins .....

MOTHERLESS Brooklyn has been Edward Norton's passion project for fully 20 years. Jonathan Lethem published the novel on which it is based, about a private eye with Tourette's syndrome, awkwardly called Lionel Essrog, in 1999. Immediately that year, Norton announced he planned to write, direct and star in a film adaptation of the book. So it has been in the works all this time.

It was the figure of Lionel himself that excited Norton (this was the year of Fight Club, incidentally), that outsiderish combination of compulsion and intelligence.

"I've always been drawn to underdogs and I fell in love with Lionel as a kind of underdog hero," he admits.

Lethem's novel had a contemporary setting, and the villains who Lionel ran into while investigating the death of his boss and mentor, Frank Minna, were standard-issue Mafiosi and a sinister Japanese corporation. Norton kept the basic story about the detective agency but, with Lethem's consent, moved the whole tale back into the late Fifties.

Partly, this was to locate it in the great era of noir gumshoes. Mostly, though, it was so that he could make it into a story about a formative period in New York's history when its development was being driven by the most significant figure Continued on Page 34 Continued from Page 33 ever in US urban planning, quasi-fascistic "master builder" Robert Moses -- the man whose corruption, power-lust and racism were exposed in Robert Caro's monumental 1974 biography, The Power Broker. Norton has long been deeply interested in these issues, having worked himself worked for a family non-profit foundation supporting affordable housing.

The ultimate enemy here, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, impressively brutish), is modelled very closely indeed on Robert Moses, not just in the way he seized power by creating public bodies like the "Bridge Authority" under his own control, but down to his twisted relationship with his impoverished brother Paul (Willem Dafoe here) and his love of swimming.

For Motherless Brooklyn aspires to be nothing less than a genre masterpiece with a moral message: a Chinatown for NewYork, a deep exploration of the dark side of the making of a modern city.

All the components seem to be in place. Bruce Willis, pictured, is as great as ever as Frank Minna, the detective agency boss who has always looked out for Lionel, taking him under his wing at an orphanage, dubbing him "Motherless Brooklyn". it is his murder, after he tangles with Moses, that Lionel is determined to avenge.

As love interest Laura Rose, a housing campaigner with deeper ties to Moses than she knows herself, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is exquisite, wonderfully self-possessed, sexual and sympathetic. …

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