Motherless Brooklyn (M)
Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which Motherless Brooklyn is based.
It's said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.
Jonathan Lethem's novel is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.
The shift to the 1950s also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings.
Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton's character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In Norton's hands, Lionel's character has a dignity that a less skilled actor might not have achieved.
Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a "freak show".
Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he also has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.
Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in a hospital emergency department.
It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).
In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development, forcing minority communities out of their homes to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph's grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a very controversial figure in urban development.
One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent Beaux-Arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenities. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets. No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs.
Randolph is played by Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump.
He is also great as Randolph, a self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.
Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious undertaking. It's a big-city story that champions the people versus the developers, an important, ongoing subject.
I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written and performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run too long. It would have been better with a tighter edit, but as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.