A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2010

Rank:  #16


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

Directed by Roman Polanski / Written by Polanski and Robert Harris, based on Harris' novel.

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 work?    

I think that the simple answer is a resounding "yes."  Actors 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 accomplished triumph. 

The 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 contemporary headlines. 

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. 

The Ghost must travel to a Massachusetts retreat where the PM now resides and must read the inordinately secure manuscript under the tightest of security.  He 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 all.  The 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 reveal it.


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 distrusting writer 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.

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