There is something fundamentally old-fashioned about the construction and delivery of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” based on the novel by Robert Harris. And, man, I wish someone else had directed this exact same film, because it would make the conversation about it so much easier.
It seems to me sometimes that movies play a game of one-upsmanship that ultimately hobbles the audience, in which filmmakers feel the need to “top” what has come before at the price of making solid films that simply tell a story well. I enjoy watching the Jason Bourne movies, but did I need every single action movie or thriller of the last five years to mercilessly copy those movies? Nope. I actually like it when a “thriller” remembers that it doesn’t have to bombard me with sound and image for its full running time, stunt after empty stunt piled on in hopes that I pay no attention to the story or the lack thereof. It is with open arms, then, that I welcome “The Ghost Writer,” a film that manages to distill a very real anger that exists in today’s society into a sleek, well-constructed adult entertainment.
I’ve seen a few people already knock “The Ghost Writer” because it draws its paranoid conspiracy underpinnings from reality, barely bothering to disguise the things it’s talking about, but when did that become a sin? One of the reasons we got so many great paranoia thrillers in the ’70s was because filmmakers were willing to let the real world bleed into their films, because they took their own very real fear and fury and made it part of the entertainment that they were making. Do I think “The Ghost Writer” is the equal of something like “The Parallax View” or “The Conversation”? No. Do I think it’s worth seeing, though, and an honorable entry in the genre? Absolutely.
Ewan McGregor stars here as The Ghost, the most cleverly unnamed protagonist in a film since “Fight Club.” He makes a living writing autobiographies for major media figures, and he lives a transitory life, often working under ridiculous deadlines and never able to claim the work he does as his own. That would drive me crazy, especially since it’s apparent from the way people treat him that The Ghost has real skill as a writer. He’s good, but he’s content to live the life he does, invisible from most people. It’s a tough leading role to pull off because part of who the character is involves being passive, but McGregor delivers one of his most likable overall performances in a while, and when things get nasty, his response seems just about perfect pitch right to me.
When a man in the service of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) dies, The Ghost is hired to finish one of the man’s many jobs for Lang, ghost-writing Lang’s much-anticipated memoirs. It seems like an easy gig to step into, a month’s work on a manuscript that already largely exists. The Ghost goes to Martha’s Vineyard to spend time with Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), hoping to get the book done quickly, only to find himself at the epicenter of a scandal that erupts over Lang’s stance on torture of terrorist suspects. It’s as on the nose as things can be right now, as topical as you can try to make a film. But if that’s what you think the film is about… any of it… I think you’re wrong. Polanski’s real paranoid thread runs to the idea of kingmaking and how it happens, and I think that’s something worth repeating in our media age, where people think they’re seeing how the magic trick is done, where they think they’re in on the joke, but where they are often looking at the wrong thing entirely. We live in a culture that inflates the notion of Tiger Woods apologizing for being a bad husband to an event on the same scale as the Berlin Wall coming down. People chase ratings rather than ideas or stories that matter, and “The Ghost Writer” is a smartly written poke at the notion that we miss the big stories that are right out in the open because, ultimately, we care about the wrong things.
Tom Wilkinson is very good during his brief screen time, making the most of each moment as usual. Kim Cattrall is an odd bit of tin-eared casting by Polanski, though, and it never pays off. It seems like she should have more to do in the film, but it’s really just a secretary role. It doesn’t help that Williams is really good here, continuing to impress. I think she’s one of those really underrated actresses, always good, always making the honest choice, and the relationship that develops between her and The Ghost is complicated every step of the way by the inability to know what is or isn’t a calculated move on somebody’s part. Likewise, the relationship between The Ghost and Adam Lang is written as a sort of devil-on-his-shoulder dialogue between Adam Lang The Image and Adam Lang The Man, and both McGregor and Brosnan know exactly how to handle the fencing. It’s a wry comment on the way media figures have to think of themselves if they want to continue to surf Fame. If you don’t play the game to some extent, you get pulverized by Fame. You can get destroyed just by standing still. Brosnan never oversells what he’s playing in any of the possible directions, and one of the reason the film’s paranoia works as a slow-burn twist is because nobody telegraphs. It’s a pretty easy film to unravel, and I think most viewers will have the majority of it worked out early. There’s something to be said, though, for the sheer tactile pleasure of watching someone who is this good at it play with the audience. Cat and mouse is just plain fun when it’s done this well. You can ignore all the text of this film you want if it rubs you wrong politically; the mechanics simply work the way they’re supposed to.
Which brings us to Polanski. Look, if the man was making films about how great it is to rape 13 year old girls and playing to that image of who he is or what he did, I’d feel pretty grotesque about supporting that career. But he’s not. If there’s anything personal about the film, it’s the idea of having to surrender your own freedom, of having no safe haven. The film feels like he knew the hammer was going to fall eventually, sooner rather than later. There’s a genuine sweaty panicked feeling to the film, and because of that, Polanski is able to really play the growing dread, the small details of it. If you’re not going to see the film because of him, I respect that. I would hope you can respect that I get the other conversation about him, but I think it’s a bore at this point, polar camps shouting at each other rather than accomplishing anything. Please try to keep the conversation on the film rather than the same tired finger-wagging. I don’t support what he did. This movie really works. That is possible.
Polanski’s developed a lovely relationship with Pawel Edelman, his cinematographer, and like “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist,” there is a particularly European sheen to the picture. It is, above all else, slick. Way slick. There’s a pretty great punchline to the film that will make Kubrick fans howl, and even if it is telegraphed, it’s still done with aplomb. “The Ghost Writer” isn’t a reboot to a genre, and it isn’t a sensation waiting to explode. It’s just a nasty little piece of candy from a skilled filmmaker with a mostly excellent cast. A movie made right. And that should be enough.
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