It’s rare to see a current film set in the past that feels so incredibly authentic to the time period it’s trying to recreate. I experienced this recently with the new feature Motherless Brooklyn. Instantly, the audience is fully immersed in the 1950s with the cinematography, production design, and costumes taking you into that world.
The film, set in New York circa 1957, focuses on Lionel (Edward Norton) a young man working at a detective agency headed by his idol, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). At the start of the movie, we see Frank investigating a secret case that ultimately gets him killed. Lionel takes it upon himself to solve his boss’ murder. Over the course of a few days, he follows clues that lead him down a dark trail through a city filled with complex characters. There’s an extremely corrupt public official (Alec Baldwin), a brilliant engineer with secrets (Willem Dafoe), and an activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) fighting for the disenfranchised citizens of New York. They all tie together in a series of twists and turns.
Norton wrote, produced, and directed Brooklyn, a passion project that has been in the making for 20 years. You can tell that he has loved and nurtured this film for decades. The writing is intelligent and the direction is precise. He also delivers on the acting front. Lionel is an emotionally scarred man with Tourette’s syndrome. He can’t control his ticks or the random offensive words that come out of his mouth. A lesser actor could have hammed this up and gone really big. But Norton makes Lionel a fully formed person and not a caricature. The supporting players also enrich the material. Mbatha-Raw, in particular, is quiet yet effective in her portrayal of Laura.
The book, of the same name, that Brooklyn was adapted from came out in the 90s and was set in that decade. Norton made the decision to change the time period because it worked well with the 50s film noir feel of the story. It was great choice. This film is on par with the classics that were actually released in that era.