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Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

It’s no coincidence that actor/director Edward Norton finally made his 1950s-style film noir, Motherless Brooklyn, when a real-life madman occupies the White House, and the United States is torn asunder with political, social and racial unrest. Yet, neither Norton nor his challenging drama, ever mentions Donald Trump or anything happening today. The film (which opens November 1st) is instead set nearly 70 years ago. It just happens to deal with the zeitgeist of current events in America.

Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.
Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.

“That is a fairly vital role for movies to play,” explains Norton. “Take Chinatown, which is a look back to the California of the ’30s, made in the ’70s. I don’t think it is coincidental at all that that movie comes at the end of the Vietnam War when the Watergate scandals were breaking open, made by a director (Roman Polanski) whose wife was murdered by a bunch of maniacs. It’s a very challenging film – this idea that the California of the American dream was built on crime, and that the people who committed these crimes raped their daughters, too.”

With other Canadian film journalists, I am sitting with Norton, and his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in an interview room at the Toronto International Film Festival, chatting about Norton’s first directorial effort in 19 years. This was a passion project for the highly regarded American actor, who is known for films as disparate as Rounders, American History X, Fight Club, Frida, 25th Hour, Moonrise Kingdom, The Bourne Legacy, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.

For Motherless Brooklyn, Norton worked on his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel for years, reorganizing the storyline and moving it from the 1990s to the 1950s. He fictionalized all the real-life characters from the ’50s. “The wisdom of doing literary versions of these things is that there is a lot of freedom to distill the essence of certain truths rather than have to explain everything,” says Norton. “There’s a reason that Citizen Kane wasn’t called Citizen Hearst,” he adds, referring to Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece. It was a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s abuse of power.

Motherless Brooklyn follows a detective named Lionel Essrog, played by Norton. Afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, Lionel works for a tough, taciturn, yet sympathetic, boss played by Bruce Willis. Left alone after a tragedy, Lionel tries to unravel a multiple-murder mystery buried inside a gigantic redevelopment scheme that has racial, social and criminal implications.

Norton consulted with Lethem. “I told him that I felt that there was an issue – that he had written a ’50s hard-boiled bunch of characters, but he set them in the modern world. In film, which is very literal, I didn’t want it to feel like the Blues Brothers. You know, guys in fedoras in the modern world. And he agreed with that 100 per cent.”

Playing a man with Tourette’s, while also directing the film, posed another challenge for Norton. It was an added complication. “There were many arguments against directing and acting in this,” says Norton. “One of the arguments for it was knowing that I could experiment with the condition a lot, but also be the one who sculpted the balance of it later [in the editing room].”

Risky? Yes, but worth it, says Norton. “There aren’t a lot of things that end up being good that aren’t creatively risky on some level.”

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.



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