A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2010
2010, R, 128 mins.
2010, R, 128 mins.
The Ghost: Ewan McGregor / Adam Lang: Pierce Brosnan / Amelia
Bly: Kim Cattrall / Ruth Lang: Olivia Williams / Paul Emmett: Tom
Wilkinson / Sidney Kroll: Timothy Hutton / John Maddox: James
Belushi / Old man: Eli Wallach
One of the central tragedies of Roman
Polanski is the fact that his real life crimes sometimes overshadow his supreme gifts as a film auteur.
The 76-year-old filmmaker was finally arrested - over his 1977 U.S.
case involving him having sex with a 13-year-old girl - by the Swiss
Police in September of 2009 while he was on his way to the Zurich Film
Festival. Of course, this
case has become the stuff of Hollywood infamy, which saw the director
abruptly skipping his sentencing in 1977 for drugging and raping the
underage girl by fleeing overseas, where he remained up until his capture.
I do not wish to engage in a
lengthy and unnecessary diatribe about the nature of Polanski’s crimes
– which were indeed wretched – nor do I want to cover the heinous
manner that his U.S. case was dealt with by one particularly unscrupulous
judge (which was cover in great detail in the evocative documentary, ROMAN
POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED). The
real point that requires mentioning is that the memories of Polanski’s
illegal actions will most likely hover over him forever, regardless of how his current
legal predicament takes him. He
also makes for a highly intriguing conundrum for a film critic: can you overlook one’s
personal life while subjectively commenting on their professional body of
I think that the simple answer
is a resounding "yes."
get into whole heaps of trouble, yet we very often ignore those issues
when reflecting on their performances.
Directors should really be no different, and this finally takes me to Polanski’s new political thriller GHOST WRITER, his first
feature in five years and one that he was finishing when arrested by the Swiss
(he reportedly finished post-production work on it while under house
arrest at his Swiss villa and apparently even edited portions of the
film during his brief incarceration in jail).
If you are willing to turn a
blind eye to Polanski’s dubious life beyond filmmaker, then you should
easily come out of GHOST WRITER admiring it as the type of exemplary taut,
tense, paranoia-fuelled political thriller that seemed to be much more in
vogue during Polanski's own renaissance as a director - the 70’s. Those thrillers
– void of the type of annoying, Michael Bayian hyperactive editing and
shooting style - placed more prominence on story, characters, mood and
atmosphere, and an escalating sensation of dread first and mind-numbing
action a distant second. He
proves how the great filmmakers are able to employ masterful and
impeccable film craft – and not cheap devices or stylistic conceits –
to sell their stories. For
those reasons, his GHOST WRITER is a sure-fire, consummately made, and
film’s fictitious, but echoing real life situations, narrative was
adapted from UK novelist Richard Harris' book THE GHOST, which was crafted
into screenplay form by both him and Polanski.
Right form the onset, the film lunges us into to its story that
uses classical elements of the finest 70’s potboilers: the initially naive,
but later intrepid investigative journalist finds himself in a web of
legal and political corruption that involves some very public and powerful
figures. What the film also
does to bravura effect is to take those familiar story elements and impart
in it some subtle – without feeling obvious and telegraphed –
allusions and references to real world politicians and some very recent
war scandals. With its tale
involving the war on terror, the relationship between the U.S. and Great
Britain, the erosion of civil liberties and war crimes, and so forth, it's
simple to see the level of condemnation that Polanski and Harris have for
their characters' reality based doppelgangers.
Yet, the performances here are so eerily spot on and convincing and
Polanski’s directorial eye is so polished and acute that the similarities
become superficial the more the film progresses; you just become engrossed
in the story so much that you begin to ignore its connections to
The “ghost” in question in the film’s title is never actually revealed in name alone during the film: he is a reputable author that specializes in ghost writing books that need serious polishing before hitting the store shelves. The “ghost” here is played by Ewan McGregor, an actor not appreciated enough for underplaying his parts with the right levels of vulnerability and determination. His agent gets him a job to rewrite the memoirs of ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, in juicy and commanding form here). Lang's lawyer (Timothy Hutton) explains all of the legal ramifications and protocol that the ghost must partake in while on the job, but he is not sure if he wants the job: he has never read political books, has very little interest in current world affairs, and is uncertain that the one month timeframe to complete the task is enough. However, when his agent informs him that a quarter of a million dollar paycheck is on the line, he quickly has a change of heart.
Ghost must travel to a Massachusetts retreat where the PM now resides and
must read the inordinately secure manuscript under the tightest of
also is to have coordinated interviews with Lang as well, which proves
tricky for the manner the PM seems dodgy on many an issue about his past.
Things soon begin to unravel for the in-over-his–head author, as
he learns that his predecessor was found dead (not a good sign) and that
Lang has recently been charged with crimes against humanity by the World
Court for his government’s kidnapping of UK citizens and then turning
them into the CIA for tortuous interrogation (also not a good sign!).
Slowly, other obstacles get in the writer’s way, like Lang’s
fiercely hot-headed wife, Ruth (in a movie-stealing performance by Olivia
Williams) seems to be losing faith in her husband (mostly out of his
affairs with his assistant, played by a surprisingly shrewd and convincing
by Kim Cattrell) and Lang’s political opponent back home, Richard
Rycart, seems willing to stop at nothing to bring Lang down once and for
icing on the cake, however, is Lang’s personal past, which is gradually
revealed to the writer the more digging he does, which seems tied to the
memoir manuscript and Lang's old college colleague that could blow the
whole story open to the world…that is if the writer can survive to
It would be hard to mistake
Brosnan’s Lang character as a reflection of former PM Tony Blair, a
figure that had very cozy ties to America during the post-911 period.
However, Lang here is more of a conglomerate of multiple political
figures, sort of a George W. Bush meets Tony Blair meets Bill Clinton (the
scandalous infidelities of Clinton and the questionable handling of Bush’s
war policies both foreign and domestic certainly have resonations here in
Lang). It’s a compelling and economical concoction as Polanski
and Harris manage to tip their fingers to multiple political indignities
that have plagued both the U.S. and the U.K. over the years without ostensibly
laying blame on any one of them.
And Brosnan is so positively magnetic here as a man of icy charm
and duplicitous motives. His
work here is thankless for how he – and the overall story – keeps you
guessing as to Lang’s real motives and history.
The performance and the script do a marvelous job at reverberating real world ties while slyly not overly
making them apparent.
The other performances are all
headstrong and persuasive: McGregor,
as stated, is as stalwart and convincing as he has ever been as the writer
who thinks he’s ahead of the game when he really is not.
Olivia Williams, who can blend beauty and poise with a venomous
tenacity, gives one of the finest supporting performances of the year as
her calculatingly hostile wife figure.
There are two other small, but key performances, that also
resonate, like one brief, but textured, cameo by the great Eli Wallach as
an elderly local that has more answers to provide than he outwardly
appears to possess, and Tom Wilkinson - one of the best character actors
alive - as a
secretive Harvard professor that has all of the answers for the writer,
but uses his cunningly defensive swagger to elude the ghost’s queries.
The verbal standoff between him and McGregor’s inquisitive and
is a performance highlight here.
Then, of course, there is Polanski himself at the helm, who shows here how he has never missed an
aesthetic step at all for the way he drums up a wet, sullen, and
depressive atmosphere for the film: GHOST WRITER takes place alternatively
between Martha’s Vineyard and London, but since Polanski could not work in
the U.S. for fear of arrest, he used locations and studios in Germany to
stand in for the American and British settings, and the results are pretty
flawless. Nitpickers will, no
doubt, point out topographical examples that would reveal Germany
standing in for Martha’s Vineyard, but filming in Germany gives the film
an otherworldly feel for time and place, which lends itself well to the
story. That, and Polanski
gives everything in the film – from Lang’s grey saturated surroundings
at his home retreat to the rain-drenched beaches and roads – an
oppressively cold and menacing veneer.
Nothing ever feels inviting in the film.
Perhaps most crucial is how
Polanski uses slow camera pans, low key and understated editing, and
nuanced pacing to further foster the film’s suspense (a skill that, again,
seems hopelessly lost on too many current filmmakers).
He more than evokes Hitchcock on several occasions: Like that great
maestro of thrills, Polanski intuitively knows how to excite and involve
audiences without relying on insipid action; he uses exquisite timing and
a rhythm to delineate scenes to elicit just the right chilling reaction.
Just look at two key moments in the film (both at the conclusion)
where Polanski makes the simple handing off of a note a moment that
develops an lingering sense of pathos, or the film’s final shot that
– instead of being broken up into a series of MTV-esque edits and herky-jerky camera moves – is allowed to linger until it builds to a tragic
consequence off screen.
Best of all is the notion that Polanski’s comedic sense of the macabre has note eluded the film: GHOST WRITER is laced with small instances of the director’s penchant for dark, observational laughs, not to mention that Polanski also seems to be satirizing himself a bit in the film’s story. Prime Minister Lang eventually goes under house arrest himself after his war crime scandal breaks loose and realizes that he may never be able to go back home for fear of persecution. The irony here is that America is one of the few countries relatively immune from the World Court, which makes it a safe haven for Lang, whereas in the reality of Polanski’s situation, the U.S. is the last place he wishes to be. It’s those little touches that make Polanski that much more of a personal filmmaker, and that is why his GHOST WRITER is such an extraordinarily defined and proficiently directed thriller. The film has his trademark elegance, intelligence, sense of unforced style, and his overall mastery of the thriller genre itself. Yes, the man has done serious wrong in the world, but his skills as a filmmaker have not been eroded by the near career-killing headlines both over the years and very recently. GHOST WRITER is not only one of the best films of 2010, but arguably the best film ever finished while its maker was in jail and later under house arrest.