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Movie Review: The Ghost Writer
Cinema Junkie   |  

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall
Release date: February 19, 2010

“I’ve been having this nightmare. A real swinger of a nightmare, too.”
— Major Bennett Marco from The Manchurian Candidate

“Have you ever heard the expression “Let sleeping dogs lie”? Sometimes you’re better off not knowing.”
— Jake Gittes from Chinatown

“Sorry, I’ve just got one question: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq? Or do you think it’s more diplomatic to bend the will of a superpower and politely take part in Vietnam the Sequel?”
— Tessa Quayle from The Constant Gardner

The Ghost Writer: Prisoner Of Convictions

The consequences of our transgressions are the stains that cannot be cleansed away. The past is the vessel that we cherish and regret with equal measure. Art can be the ultimate catharsis when dealing with the past or attempting to get through the present depending on what one’s situation is. Imagine what life would be like if we could write are our memoirs with the aid of a ghost writer who believes everything we say. Unfortunately, what would happen if the ghost writer goes to check all the information you provide? Your life would take on different meaning — more honesty might expose you to disgrace or more ridicule.

The gray skies of Martha’s Vineyard that permeate throughout Roman Polanski‘s The Ghost Writer serve as an indicator of the slippery slope between black and white. Under those foreboding skies, the past and the present are jostling for the right tone to ensure the future of one man’s legacy. The Ghost of the film’s title, superbly played by Ewan McGregor, is never named. The Ghost is a writer for hire; the Ghost is a book fixer. The Ghost has been hired to fix Adam Lang’s unfinished memoirs. Adam Lang is the former British Prime Minister played with delicious conviction by Pierce Brosnan. The previous ghost writer has been found dead — his body found washed up on the beach. Yet before the Ghost meets Lang, he has already been put through the ringer. In London he deals with a rude editor who thinks he is wrong for the job, publishers demanding the manuscript be completed in a short amount of time and being assaulted by thieves on a motorcycle who think they have gotten Lang’s manuscript. What has the Ghost gotten into? When he arrives at the beach house in Martha’s Vineyard, the house looks and feels more like a bunker than anything else — a very luxurious bunker complete with a security detail and a secretarial staff. Polanski never allows the house to become the objection of pornographic wealth as it would in a Nancy Meyers’ film; nonetheless, the house provides an aura of impending danger. The Ghost is perfect for the job; he has no family or history. He is not so much a blank slate, but a convenient tool to get the job done.

The Ghost’s arrival into Lang’s world reveals a new world to him. A former British Prime Minister living with his wife in a secluded house away from everyone in order to put his own spin on his history and secure his rightful place in history. At first this seems a routine assignment — transform a bland political autobiography into something vitally seductive to light up the best seller lists. The Ghost’s specialty is taking the personal elements and using them to create dashing flair. When he meets Brosnan’s Lang, he is bemused by his charm. It is not only Lang, but Lang’s personal assistant, Kim Cattrall‘s Amelia Bly who serves as his guide through these new waters. This world is new to him. At first the ghost seems a bit like Charles Ryder from Brideshead RevistedBrideshead Revisted as reimagined by Roman Polanski. Beneath Lang’s charm lies a wicked undercurrent of stubborn idealism mixed with arrogant conviction hiding true anger. Yet Adam Lang is only part of the equation. It is Lang’s intelligent vixen of a wife who may be the real mover and shaker in this complex marriage. Olivia Williams play Ruth, who may be the closest screen doppelganger we have to the real Cherie Blair. Yes, make no mistake about it; Adam and Ruth Lang are cinematic stand-ins for Tony and Cherie Blair. Robert Harris, the author of the novel, The Ghost, on which the film is based, is the film’s screenwriter with Polanski. He has made it quite clear that Adam Lang is a thinly veiled portrait of Tony Blair. Robert Harris views Tony Blair as a war criminal. The book has served as a stinging indictment of Tony Blair’s tenure and his role in the Iraq War. The book and film would never have worked had it just been a fictional roman a clef. By making this story a thriller, it pays off in handsome rewards for the audience.

Brosnan’s performance cannot be praised enough. The irony is something to be desired as the man who was born to play James Bond has already managed to send up the iconic role in two brilliant performances: The Tailor Of Panama and The Matador. But in the The Ghost Writer, Brosnan has taken his James Bond character and made him out to be a true believer of arrogant ideology. Watch Brosnan as his character defends his decisions to McGregor’s Ghost in the film’s third act. The conviction in his vocalizations is the ultimate defense of his righteousness paid with the blood of others. Adam Lang may rank as Pierce Brosnan’s crowning acting achievement. Adam Lang is James Bond’s antithesis. He makes Andrew Osnard in The Tailor Of Panama look like the perfect schoolboy. His Blair is radically different from Michael Sheen’s portrayal in The Deal and The Queen. Sheen’s performances in those films took place long before the events of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Brosnan’s performance also differs greatly from Hugh Grant’s performance as the Prime Minister in Love Actually in 2003. Grant’s performance in the classic British romantic comedy is notable because it is a clear repudiation of Blair and his relationship to President George W. Bush. Grant’s character does not go along with Billy Bob Thornton’s United States President in that film. Consider it the first subversive narrative film of the post-9/11 era. The parallels to Tony Blair and the real world only serve to enhance the story in The Ghost Writer. It gives the film the very drive it needs. Many of the films that have dealt with this period have failed because they come across as dry polemics, but a polemic is the last thing Mr. Polanski wants to give his audience.

Relationships are vital in The Ghost Writer. The Ghost’s relationship to Amelia Bly, Adam Lang, and especially Ruth Lang are maps to unexpected destinations. If the first act reminds of a twisted Brideshead Revisted, then once the Ghost gets to know Adam and especially Ruth, than the film veers into familiar territory for Roman Polanski. The Ghost begins to find contradictions in some of the stories that Adam Lang is telling him for the book, some really big contradictions. Timelines become victims to the realms of preferred memory. The writer must become amateur detective to see if the facts are in order. As he digs deeper, he realizes that the facts do not add up. It does not help matters that Lang is soon involved in a major scandal which involves allegations of torture, rendition and all the things that went along with maintaining that very “special relationship” with the United States at the time. The scandal erupts after one of Mr. Lang’s former cabinet ministers comes forward with these allegations. The Ghost begins digging for the truth. It is here where the film begins to echo in the best possible way Roman Polanski’s Chinatown for a variety of reasons. The Ghost is a descendant of Jack Nicholson’s iconic Jake Gittes as he begins to uncover the undercurrents of Mr. Lang’s recent past. If Ewan McGregor seems to be channeling a variation of Nicholson’s Gittes then in many ways Brosnan is channeling John Huston’s Noah Cross. The Ghost encounters several characters to help him uncover the truth — Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, and Robert Pugh. Earlier in the film Timothy Hutton and James Belushi play small, but vital parts.

Yet, his relationship to Adam is only half of the equation. It is his relationship with Ruth Lang that truly complicates matters and takes the film to the next level. If he is Jake Gittes in uncovering Adam’s past, then his relationship with Ruth takes him into The Manchurian Candidate territory. There are echoes of John Le Carre’s greatest novels. The film veers into an unholy mix of the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970’s, the novels of John Le Carre and ultimately into a daring homage to John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Richard Kelly is not the only director to understand the paranoid glory of the original film.

Olivia Williams’ portrayal of Ruth Lang is seductively brilliant. Her performance reminds us of the genius of her performances in Rushmore, The Man From Elysian Fields, and her role as Adelle DeWitt on the television series, Dollhouse. She managed to be vital as Miss Stubbs in An Education. Yet, it is as Ruth Lang where she is at her very best. She is the thinking person’s sex symbol in this film. At first, her relationship seems to mirror the relationship between James McAvoy and Helen Mirren in The Last Station, but it goes deeper. It would be too easy to say that she is channeling Cherie Blair, but you need more than tired political commentary to sell a film. The screenplay by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski is much more interested into what made Adam and Ruth who they are. What made Adam Lang such a willing participant in United States foreign policy? Their thesis is fascinating and ultimately very frightening. The deliberate transparency to real life figures is only a gateway into a rabbit hole of engrossing theories.

As The Ghost, Ewan McGregor has never been better. Do not get me wrong, he was always good as Danny Boyle’s alter ego in films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. He is always willing to branch out and take a chance in films like The Pillow Book, Young Adam, Little Voice, Velvet Goldmine, Down With Love, Moulin Rouge!, Cassandra’s Dream, and Big Fish. He was one of the few bright spots in the inferior Star Wars Prequel Trilogy — you never doubted his Obi-Wan Kenobi would mature into Alec Guinness. As the nameless writer, he takes full charge. He has become the great Polanski protagonist digging for the truth through a dizzying maze of smoke and mirrors. What became of his predecessor is only the tip of the iceberg. His relationships with minor characters are just as vital to his relationships with the central characters. He joins a great linage of classic protagonists from Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and especially Chinatown. It is Frank Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate that may be his closest cinematic sibling. The Ghost is one of Ewan McGregor’s finest performances.

The Ghost is a political thriller at its core. The novel, as well as the film, has no problem taking a swipe at a British Prime Minister’s relationship with the United States and its foreign policy. It is perhaps the best of these thrillers since Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 film, The Constant Gardner based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name. The film was one of the few political thrillers which worked very well as a film that did not get bogged down by its politics. Like The Ghost Writer, it never feels like a polemic. The Constant Gardner was one of the angriest films to come out of the decade. It harked back to the great films of the 1970’s. The Ghost Writer shows it anger too as we see protesters rally against Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang throughout the film.

A great thriller should have a great soundtrack and Alexandre Desplat‘s score does not disappoint. His scores to Birth, The Girl With Pearl Earring, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, The Painted Veil, and Coco Before Chanel are as enchanting as they are different. And while it is right to say that his score for The Ghost Writer pays homage to Bernard Herrmann, it also shares a lot with Wojciech Kilar’s beautifully haunting score for The Ninth Gate. Pawel Edelman‘s cinematography is blissfully dark giving us the sense of ominous things going on or to come. Edelman worked with Polanski on The Pianist and Oliver Twist. Germany serves as a stand-in for London and Martha’s Vineyard. Since Mr. Polanski cannot enter the United States, the German locations serve as excellent substitutes. Thanks to Edelman’s camera work and Polanski’s cunning skills, we never really question the authenticity of the locations.

On the surface, it is easy to see why Roman Polanski was attracted to this project. He may have an affinity for Adam Lang, a man who must live with the consequences of his convictions and his decisions. Surely, the idea of hiring a writer to come and re-edit your biography the way you want it and not the way it is, must have been tempting to Roman Polanski. Polanski’s biography is the stuff of movies. There is real life tragedy and triumph in his celluloid past. He survived the Holocaust. His early life reads like Jerzy Kosinki’s The Painted Bird. While the horrors of his youth and the death of his Mother at Auschwitz informed some of his films such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, it goes much deeper than that. The films, after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of Manson Family, reflect that tragic part of his life as well. While those horrors would be enough to destroy anyone’s sanity, it made for a certain catharsis in all of Roman Polanski’s great films. Nowhere is this cathartic release greater in recent memory than The Ghost Writer.

As I write this, Roman Polanski is under house arrest in Switzerland waiting to see if he will be sent back to Los Angeles for sentencing for having sexual relations with a thirteen year old girl in 1977. Unlike his other films of the post-1977 incident, I feel The Ghost Writer is where he has been the most confident in dealing with his recent troubled past. The Pianist may be his most personal film to date before The Ghost Writer, but The Pianist is really dealing with his childhood. What makes the film so powerful is how honest he is with the subject matter; he is not trying to make a film for high school history classes. With The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski has finally come home. He has made a film that combines everything that concerns him and also is having the time of his life doing it. He is having fun with us as he gives us scenes with protesters waiting outside of Lang’s beach residence. The protesters and the media circus that erupts after the scandal breaks is great cinematic self-reflection. I think he identifies with not only Lang, but also with The Ghost. Polanski has always looked for the truth in his films. At times, The Ghost Writer echoes Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby in that search for the truth. Roman Polanski has taken a great pulp thriller and turned it into something truly personal. While some may praise or dismiss it for that very quality, there is no denying that his personal history adds a multitude of layers to his films. Not only that, we are seeing a filmmaker at the top of his craft. As with Martin Scorsese’s recent Shutter Island (a film similar in atmosphere and location), we are witnessing a rare feeling of fresh excitement with the craft of filmmaking. The Ghost Writer is Mr. Polanski’s way of telling us that he is far from finished with us or with filmmaking. He makes it look so easy. The Ghost Writer is a reminder why we should never count Roman Polanski out.

1 Comment »

  1. Outstanding review!

    Comment by The Toast in the Machine — March 13, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

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