BETWEEN last week’s enjoyably retro murder mystery Knives Out, and this tale of gumshoes working the mean streets of 1950s New York, the movies are finding the past is a foreign country they enjoy living in. What’s wrong with the here and now you might wonder? Okay, daft question.

Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem, has been 20 years in the brewing, with Ed Norton, the writer-director-star, determined to bring the book to the screen come what may. Such is its excessive running time it can often feel to the viewer that they are back in the trenches with him.

Norton was drawn to the novel for its central character, a private investigator by the name of Lionel Essrog. Lionel, an orphan nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss/father figure/mentor Frank (Bruce Willis), has Tourette’s. You can see why the character is an actor’s dream, and also why the part requires careful handling lest it lapses into caricature.

Norton is fortunately up to the job, even if the character does skirt with cliche (Lionel, like many a disabled character in the movies, is given a compensating “super power”, in his case a superb memory).

Devoted to his boss for looking after him as a kid and giving him a job, Lionel takes up the case when Frank pays a high price for crossing some powerful people.

Digging around the case, Lionel discovers a tale of murky goings on at city hall where property developer Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) is driving through his plans for mass gentrification, tearing down neighbourhoods and evicting the poor, often black, residents.

The story, loosely based on the real life case of Robert Moses, is a fascinating one (as every Robert Caro fan knows), but it quickly becomes buried in complexities that Norton the screenwriter is unable to smooth out. It does not help, either, that the film takes an age to get going then loses its way. As is often the way with actor-directors, some scenes overrun badly.

Just as well, then, that there is the likes of Norton (watchable as ever), Baldwin, and a supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, as a fellow gumshoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a campaigner who helps Lionel, and Willem Dafoe as Randolph’s needy brother, to pass the time. Baldwin is perfectly placed as the seemingly all-powerful developer who sees people as ants in his grand plans.

The strong cast, and the loving attention to detail displayed as Norton conjures up 1950s New York, are worth taking a wander into the labyrinthine story. Just be sure to leave breadcrumbs to find your way out again.