Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Ghost Writer ***1/2

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall
Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, Robert Pugh
Jon Bernthal, Eli Wallach

Few living directors can muster the same kind of public attention that Roman Polanski attracts. More than countless other filmmakers, his life has always been marked by scandal and tragedy, making it a "public right" of sorts to try and decipher his latest work by way of what the audience knows about him.
Upon the release of The Ghost Writer in early 2010, Polanski was once again facing extradition charges and literally finished working on the film in prison.
It should come as no surprise that after watching this marvelously exciting political thriller, you wonder, even for a second, if Polanski didn't plan all that was happening to him.
After all, this film is proof that few filmmakers have mastered the delicate art of suspense in the way Polanski can. Every twist, line and move in The Ghost Writer feels perfect. He's an apt sorcerer and sets a mood from the opening shot of the film in which we see a ferry unloading its cargo.
Only one car is left behind, it belongs to Mike McAra, who turns up a few days later, drowned on the shore in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
McAra was working as ghostwriter for Adam Lang (Brosnan), a former British Prime Minister, compiling his memoirs. His death forces the publishing company to find a replacement, they go with Ewan McGregor's nameless character (known as "the ghost" throughout the film), who currently has no familiar attachments and is practically a man without a past. This noir-ish detail sets the tone of what's to come.
The ghost is flown over to Massachusetts to work next to Lang who is staying there while the manuscript is completed. There the ghost meets the charismatic former PM (played by the debonair Brosnan), his unsatisfied wife Ruth (Williams) and his faithful assistant Amelia (the luscious Cattrall) who might be his mistress too.
On the day of the ghost's arrival, a former British minister accuses Lang of having ties with illegal extractions and torture of suspected terrorists. This puts the spotlight on them as the International Criminal Court begins investigating and the worldwide media becomes insane.
Immersing himself in the manuscript, the ghost begins to discover that perhaps Lang might not be as innocent as he seems and there might be something that could incriminate him in his book. So where should he go from that premise? Is he supposed to do the "right thing" and try to help authorities bring Lang to justice, should he help him clear his name, should he quit?
As the possible turns the story could take begin to rack up, so does the questioning that Polanski and co-writer Robert Harris (who also wrote the original novel) ignite.
The film at no moment tries to hide the fact that Lang is a version of Tony Blair and the events around him remind us of George W. Bush's administration, Cheri Blair's persona and Benazir Bhutto assassination among many other contemporary political events.
What differentiates The Ghost Writer from recent attempts of making political thrillers is that Polanski never forgets that a thriller must in fact thrill!
And everything in this movie seems to be conspiring against the ghost and his investigation. Most of the movie takes place in the midst of terrible weather but Polanski is too sly to have it represent the characters' darkness, in his movie the clouds terrify us because we never know what's behind them.
This is essentially why the film works in such unexpected ways; even if everything seems familiar and the plot isn't entirely groundbreaking, the mood more than makes up for it. There's a pervading sense of menace in every frame (and what frames does DP Pawel Edelman come up with!), in every cut, in Alexandre Desplat's mischievously macabre score and in the dialogues.
We are always waiting for something to happen and in this sense the film recalls some of Alfred Hitchcock's best work (think Rebecca by way of North by Northwest) but it also has a lot to say about art and history.
Particularly the way in which said art shapes history, for what is the ghost doing if not rewriting Lang's history? And what is Lang's issue if not his impossibility to be faithful to his own history?
But there is more than meets the eye and this is perhaps where preconceptions about Polanski enter the conversation.
As male driven as The Ghost Writer is, there is a sense that we're also being reminded of the women working behind the curtain. Watch how in several scenes, women are expertly framed in specific shots as if they are being puppet masters to the male actions closer to the camera.
Is Polanski winking at the conspiracy theories involving Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton or is he paying homage to the way the women in his own life designed his own history?
What's true is that no other director could've made this movie and turn it into such a personal genre flick. Why? Because no other director could inspire the kind of debates he does. Stylistically this film is an upgrade of his own The Ninth Gate but thematically it approaches something darker in the vein of Chinatown. What would The Ghost Writer be without Polanski's own tragedies?
Ironically and perversely this movie reminds us that most of the time truth is more incredible than fiction.


Simon said...

I try not to look too much into the motives behind it. I mean, I know doing so might make the movie better, but I just don't want to get into it.

Olivia Williams rocks.

Burning Reels said...

Loved the ending to the film but the early pacing and plot seemed to plod a little and I didn't really like the casting of Brosnan and Cattrall, and although McGregor was slightly better than anticipated, within the last few years, his acting work has become a little dull.

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