Having seen Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” last month, the mixed reaction to the film’s premiere at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival today is something of a surprise. It’s not that “Writer” is up there with Polanski’s classics such as “Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby” or “The Pianist,” but it’s clearly one of his most commercial and entertaining pictures since he went into exile over 30 years ago.
Adapted from Robert Harris’ best selling 2007 novel “The Ghost,” the picture finds Ewan McGregor playing a ghost writer recruited to help finish the autobiography of a former disgraced British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan. As McGregor’s character travels to the remote U.S. retreat the PM has been held up on, he encounters his longtime personal assistant who may know too much but is too loyal (a slick Kim Cattrall) and his frustrated and possibly more politically keen wife (a fantastic Olivia Williams). As the days go by, the PM’s life story is not what it seems and it has dangerous consequences for all.
One of the most positive complete reviews so far is Fionnuala Halligan’s take in Screen International. The Brit describes it as “A stylish, precise salute to Hitchcock”s thrillers but still bearing all the hallmarks of Roman Polanski”s distinctive style.” She also throws out a publicity friendly quote calling it a “film lover’s delight.” Halligan has praise for the Brosnan making the British PM not “another tedious impersonation of Tony Blair.” Moreover, she gives her biggest praise to star Ewan McGregor noting it’s “his best performance in years.”
A little less enthusiastic, but still positive was Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter. This pundit rarely agrees with Honeycutt and is not sure the thriller is a “surefire box office hit domestically” (possibly), but we agree “[unlike ‘Chinatown’] this is a slicker, shallower exercise. It’s hypnotic as it unfolds, but once the credit roll frees you from its grip, it doesn’t bear close scrutiny.” And that last point is clearly not a swipe at its artistic accomplishment. The film is just a very good, intriguing and solid thriller.
A much more cranky take comes from Derek Elley of Variety. He immediately rips the “weak” performance by McGregor in the film and seems to dismiss the whole endeavor as a straight book-to-screen adaptation. Elley also criticizes the film for a “lack of real action or thrills” (sorry, this isn’t a “Bourne” movie Mr. Elley). Brosnan’s role, one of his best in quite awhile in this writer’s opinion, is described as “hardly believable” and Elley even goes so far to rip the art direction assuming there are no modern designed homes on Martha’s Vineyard (the location is just described as “an island off the Atlantic coast”). Mr. Elley might need to get out more.
What the critic did praise — and boy, judging from the tone of this review, it must have killed him to do so — is Tom Wilkinson’s “beautifully played scene” as a “hint of what the movie could have been.”
On the other hand, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls it “the director’s most purely enjoyable film in years” and awards it four out of five stars adding it’s “a Hitchcockian nightmare with a persistent, stomach-turning sense of disquiet, brought off with confidence and dash.” Ditto that.
The question really is, will critics across the world give Polanski a fair shake on “Ghost”? It seems almost everyone conveniently forgot why he was living in exile as he heaped praise and an Oscar for “The Pianist” or the ignored “Oliver Twist” a few years later. But the controversy over Swiss authorities extraditing him back to the United States (which they seem in no rush to do), the industry from top to bottom is once again uncomfortable with how to deal with the iconic filmmaker. And as reviewer, do you judge the film independent of that predicament or do you let your opinions on the filmmaker affect your cinematic judgement?
With “The Ghost Writer” opening in New York and Los Angeles on the 19th, it will be curious to see how some of the more well known critics from the papers and magazines of record respond to it. As for audiences, Polanski controversy or not, word of mouth should be strong. Whether that means a hit depends on your definition of success, but a $35-40 million gross isn’t out of the question.
As for this pundit, I am certainly looking forward to seeing it again and hope Wilkinson’s great supporting turn is remembered a year from now.
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