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Set in 50s New York this twist-perfect thriller sees Edward Norton play a private eye who learns to use his Tourette's to avenge his hero

By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Motherless Brooklyn


A FILM noir set in 50s New York with Edward Norton playing a young private eye trying to solve the murder of his mentor, Motherless Brooklyn is big on atmosphere, music and twist-perfect plotting.

Bruce Willis plays the grizzled gumshoe Frank Minna whose L & L agency employs grown-up catholic orphan friends including Lionel.

“He gave us a place in this sh*tty world,” Lionel tells us and can’t help excitedly shouting “Frank, Frankly, Frankity, Franko!” when Frank appears.

That’s because Lionel battles Tourette’s and obsessive compulsive order and an impatient world that dismisses him as weird, but this test is a coming of age when we see his talents as he steps up.

“If there’s one thing my brain knows how to do it’s to listen and remember things,” he says.

But as the film opens, Frank’s solo investigation for some sinister people has rattled them – has he dug too deep? – he plans to keep the evidence under his hat. But after a car chase, Lionel finds Frank shot, on the brink of death, failing to pass on the information that put him in danger.

The rest of the movie, Lionel is becoming the late Frank’s most promising successor. Donning the dead man’s precious hat, Lionel’s dogged pursuit of the tiny pieces of information he can find entangle him in jazz clubs and housing relocation schemes, circling closer and closer to beautiful principled lawyer Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the sinister planning commissioner and ruthless Trumpesque megalomaniac developer Moses – Mo – Randolph.

The city’s reinventing itself, and that powers a thread that leads Lionel towards an evil set to pull New York to its knees.

“Frank always used to say ‘Tell your story walking’, so here’s how it all went down,” Lionel says near the start in a series of voiceovers through the film that add to the brilliantly-retro feel of the movie.

Edward Norton as Lionel in Motherless Brooklyn, Inverness Film Festival's opening movie.
Edward Norton as Lionel in Motherless Brooklyn, Inverness Film Festival's opening movie.

The music – including Thom Yorke’s special Daily Battles song – is another key to the feel of the film.

With an original soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton (King Arthur) and Wynton Marsalis playing the music of the virtuoso trumpeter character and fellow spirit of Lionel’s, played by actor Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar in The Wire), all part of it.

But as well as revenging Frank, Lionel has to restore his hero’s values to the agency – and there’s a few telling showdown scenes, two with Moses where the villain has to take stock.

“You come on weird, but you’re smart,” says Moses, in a sinisterly blank-faced performance from Alec Baldwin.

Earlier one of his henchmen grudgingly admits to Lionel: “We didn’t figure you for the ace in Minna’s pack.”

Surely Frank would have rooted for Lionel, his ‘motherless Brooklyn’, to get a winning hand at last.

Who for:

Lovers of film noir and tightly-written thrillers.

What happens:

A private eye with Tourette’s and OCD must solve the murder of his boss and hero to earn the respect of his colleagues – and try to save the woman he loves.

Best quote:

Lionel to developer Moses Randolph: “That gumshoe was my friend and that girl is the only reason you are breathing.”

Quick review:

It’s already been called an East Coast Chinatown. In this 50s New York neo-noir tale of murder and corruption, Edward Norton turns in a sympathetic, nicely-understated performance as private eye Lionel … to go along with his other exemplary roles on the movie as director, screenwriter and producer. Strong celebrity cast, twisty plot and lush soundtrack.

Motherless Brooklyn is out officially on December 6 and will return to Eden Court Cinema Friday to Thursday, January 3 to 9.

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