The 1950s New York City-set crime drama Motherless Brooklyn has Edward Norton all over it: He’s not only the film’s writer and director, he’s also its lead. What’s more, he produced the project through this own company, Class 5 Films. Fans of Norton will want to put the movie on their must-see lists. The premise of Motherless Brooklyn, which Norton adapted from the Jonathan Lethem novel of the same name, follows private investigator Lionel Essrog as he attempts to track down the culprit behind the murder of his mentor. As he fights against time to put all the pieces together, he falls for Laura Rose, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a lawyer who becomes unwittingly involved. Here’s our take on how the film’s lead actors fared with their performances.
Norton took on a physical challenge in playing Lionel, who is afflicted with Tourette syndrome. The actor believably displays the outward characteristics of the syndrome as well as the embarrassment that comes from outbursts he can’t control. His skill in portraying a nervous system disorder comes as no surprise since Norton previously played another character whose speech was interrupted by spasms. That character, Aaron/Roy in Primal Fear, garnered Norton lots of critical attention and his first Oscar nomination. It remains to be seen if his portrayal of Lionel will earn him another Oscar nod. Regardless, Norton delivers a convincing and compelling performance.
According to Vanity Fair, it took Norton 20 years to get the film made. In that time, he seems to have become incredibly well acquainted with Lionel Essrog. His intimate character knowledge is evident in the depth with which Norton plumbs his role, allowing us to watch him evolve over the course of the 144-minute film.
Lionel has a traumatic backstory that involves growing up in an orphanage where he was punished for his disability. His mentor, Frank Minna, was the one who saved him from that abusive environment, and as Lionel tells us, helped him put his brain to good use. Norton expertly externalizes Lionel’s intelligence, displaying his incredible memory and ability with deductive reasoning, traits that lend themselves well to his profession. When Lionel meets Laura, we see him develop still further. Laura inspires him to truly care about others—a newfound quality that Norton gently weaves into Lionel’s scarred, lone-wolf personality. The transformation results in redemption for Lionel and shapes him into a character that viewers will enjoy getting to know by the end of the film.
Mbatha-Raw’s Laura is a female character with the power to awe and inspire. As a black lawyer and a woman in 1950s America, Laura doesn’t have it easy. But she persists in her fight against racist politicians and handles day-to-day slights with poise and dignity, such as when white men block her from available seats on the subway. Mbatha-Raw beautifully embodies another quality integral to Laura: empathy. She’s one of the few people to look past Lionel’s disability and see him for the man he is. The script requires the actress to push to heavy emotional levels, and she does so masterfully. When Mbatha-Raw weeps, it’s subtle and never moves into melodrama. In a sense, the delay in bringing Motherless Brooklyn was a blessing because it allowed Mbatha-Raw to cross paths with the film at the right time in her career. Norton’s film benefits from the grace and caliber of her work.
Norton and Mbatha-Raw are surrounded by a star-studded cast that includes Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Bobby Cannavale, and Leslie Mann. Viewers can catch all their performances on November 1 when Warner Bros. releases Motherless Brooklyn.