Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ghost Writer

" a Horrible Kind of Way"

From the first jolting burst of rain on the soundtrack to the last exquisitely planned-out shot (and indeed to the thudding end of Alexandre Desplat's Herrmannesque score), Roman Polanski's film of "The Ghost Writer" is one of the most intricately mapped out paranoid-thrillers since the heady post-Watergate days when they were in vogue. But, more than those austere films of plots, counter-plots and figures in shadows, this film has wit, wisdom and a sorcerer's command of the English language. In fact, it feels more like a Hitchcock film than any of Polanski's other thrillers.

And that's due to the precision of the writing—as it should be, since the film is about writing and word-choice and the differences between truth and artifice. Co-scenarists
Robert Harris (who wrote the movie source "The Ghost") and Polanski, set up an intricate puzzle to be solved, ala Hitchcock, that is both visually compelling and haunting.

For those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, it's a familiar story: a ferry pulls into dock, and the off-load of vehicles is stopped by one lone vehicle with no one behind the wheel. Already, there's a story there with several possible outcomes. Did the driver forget he had his car and walked off the ferry? Are they still on the boat, say, in the bathroom?

Or did they fall overboard? Or, for that, were they pushed?

A simple story line—common, really—but it creates the question: where did the driver go? And for a movie it's a natural, because it can be presented in purely visual terms.

Turns out the missing man was a writer—a ghost-writer, specifically, named Mike McAra, and, within days, he's found washed-up on shore with an extremely high blood-alcohol content. McAra, at the time, had been working anonymously on the memoirs of the once popular former
Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, never better *) A new ghost-writer is hired (Ewan McGregor), and is given access to the top-secret manuscript (and the former PM) only by travelling to the high-security compound owned by the publishers to which Lang and his small staff have retreated to work on the book. The new ghost (he is never named, as he wouldn't be on the book) is de-briefed, patted down, scanned, searched and only then is he allowed to read the draft, which is under lock and key and never to leave its present sequestered location.

To his horror, he finds the book a snoozer—he doesn't like political memoirs, anyway—and he's determined to beat it into some kind of readable shape, given a time-limit of only four weeks.

The compound he's staying at on Martha's Vineyard is a concrete nightmare that looks more suited to one of the villains Brosnan battled in the Bond series—high-tech-gadgeted, and constantly surveilled. The minimal staff includes Lang's assistant from the No. 10 days,
Amelia Bly (a smart, sharp Kim Cattrall), and overseen by Lang's wife Ruth (the wonderful Olivia Williams from "Rushmore" and "An Education"). Soon, complications set in and the building goes into crisis mode as it is revealed that Lang, in his dealings with the U.S. on the war on terror, was involved in the kidnapping and torture of terror-suspects, and may be brought up on charges as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court.

Suddenly, the compound is in a state of siege and that memoir becomes a hot topic: The publisher (Jim Belushi, unrecognizable and nicely brusk) wants the book in two weeks before the headlines get cold, Lang leaves to go on an image-building trip to Washington, the press is bombarding the compound ("the pack is on the move" as Amelia puts it), protesters chant outside the gate, and The Ghost is left there with a few mysteries to unravel. Both he and Lang are nicely metaphored by the compound's gardener trying to keep the dead grass he's just raked into a wheelbarrow on a blustery day.

Leave the exposition at that. But it calls to mind past Polanski films of protagonists walking in the foot-prints of people who have come before, and in danger of losing their own identity to them—not that hard for The Ghost, as he has no identity in the film (
Lang merely calls him "man," because he has no head for names).

There are twists and turns, but where it is enticing is the way Polanski mines the material for suspense and humor. No detail goes unused—not the security, not the weather, not the language, not the technology, not the sound. Small glances through slitted curtains may be significant, as are muffled conversations in the next room, or the insistence by a staff-member to use a car on the island, rather than the bicycle. It COULD be innocent. He really MIGHT be concerned about the weather. But, then again...

Then, again. Along with the paranoia are moments of perverse comedy where The Ghost's stealth make him stick out like a sore thumb, or just makes things more difficult for himself. Aware of his position as a replacement, he soon finds himself retracing his predecessor's steps, having to both live up to the trusted writer's reputation, but also to do right by him to find out what happened.
If he can escape the same fate.

The performer's are uniformly excellent:
McGregor is a perfect protagonist, veering between deer-in-the-headlights and the wily hubris of the Man Who Knows Too Much, Brosnan and his character share a theater background, and the actor allows the arrogance and The Act of being a politician look believable in equal measure. Olivia Williams is by turns steel and rubber in her role, and Cattrall efficiently perfect—you suspect her immediately. There are also nice turns by Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach and the ubiquitous Tom Wilkinson, and by Robert Pugh as one of Lang's political rivals.

But it's Polanski's show—he's the Puppet-Master, the audience-conductor like Sir Alfred, and effective enough that you leave the theater with a heightened sense of awareness, looking around corners, at things out-of-place, that the world is a more dangerous place.

And the most deliciously perverse irony is that Polanski had to complete the film in the place that informed the sensibility and interests of the young Hitchcock's film career: a prison cell.

"The Ghost Writer" is a Full-Price Ticket.

* Despite his hard-scrabble up-bringing Brosnan has always been better at playing effete characters. It's why his James Bond was something of a bore—Brosnan seems more suited to knocking someone out with a nerve-pinch than a karate chop.

** "I must have been about four or five years old. My father sent me to the police station with a note. The chief of police read it and locked me in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying "This is what we do to naughty boys." Hitchcock/Truffaut p. 17


Mike Lippert said...

Glad you rated this a full price ticket. I really want to see it. Now I just need to find a theater in Toronto that is playing it. You'd think there'd be at least one.

Yojimbo_5 said...

It's a great movie (as opposed to a Great Film), and Polanski's notoriety is probably a factor in its under-performing. Right now, it's stuck in "Select Cities" mode until it becomes financially viable to "go wide," but that may not happen—I do notice a new advertising push for it, though.

But it's a hoot, and you should check it out if you can.

wheylona said...

Just read the book (after reading your review!) and am looking forward to seeing the movie--I can see Ewan McGregor being perfect for the ghost. Now the only trick is finding it in a theater in original version; otherwise, alas, I must await the DVD...

Yojimbo_5 said...

Alas, indeed.

But I don't think you'll LOSE anything on home-video. It's joys are joys of intent, not presentation bells and whistles.

I've been seeing the word "masterpiece" bandied about, and I think that's hype—I think there are better Polanski's—but it certainly shows a fully-engaged director not missing a chance to improve his film. And Polanski's always excelled at films that hold dangers on the peripherals.

wheylona said...

I'm sure it's not a big loss, BUT I prefer to enjoy big-screen Ewan wherever possible. :-)

We've taken to trekking up to Biarritz once a month or so, where they have a super VO theater and show lots of subtitled non-French films, way more than San-"We think we are cinema fans but dub most everything"-Sebastián. I'm hoping we can catch it in Biarritz.

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