The Ghost Writer
Director : Roman Polanski
Screenplay : Robert Harris and Roman Polanski (based on the novel by Robert Harris)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), James Belushi (John Maddox), Eli Wallach (Old man)
The Ghost Writer is Roman Polanski’s first non-supernatural thriller in several decades, and it is one of his most engrossing and politically savvy works. The screenplay by Polanski and Robert Harris (taken from Harris’s 2007 novel) is taut and suspenseful in interweaving the fundamental pleasures of a good mystery with an astute critique of the current sociopolitical climate, ending with a devastating final shot reminiscent of Polanski’s most powerfully subversive genre inversions (particularly 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1974’s Chinatown) in the way it gut-punches you with the reality that solving the mystery is only a small step toward resolving the crisis of evil. In fact, as Polanski shows again and again in his films, discovery is not only not enough, but frequently works against the protagonist, confronting him or her with a world of corruption that the individual (always the ideological and functional hero of Hollywood cinema) is ill-equipped to confront.
The ill-equipped protagonist this time around is an unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) who is hired by a massive international publishing house to ghostwrite the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a disgraced Tony Blair-esque former British prime minister currently living in seclusion on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Lang has been accused of all manner of bad behavior regarding his stalwart endeavors against international terrorism, and the publishing house has fronted a great deal of money for what they assume will be a controversial best-seller. The only problem is that the previous ghostwriter has died in a mysterious drowning and they need the book in a matter of weeks. Thus, McGregor’s writer is called in as a last-minute replacement, charged with shaping Lang’s sentimental memories into something compelling and, more importantly, sellable.
Thus, he is whisked away from his home in England to the island off the northeast coast, which is wracked with the preternaturally gray skies and stormy rains of autumn, but not before being mugged by a mysterious assailant who most likely thought the manuscript in his possession was Lang’s memoirs. No concerns there: the actual memoirs are kept under tight lock and key at Lang’s modernist concrete-and-glass mansion-cum-compound on the beach, carefully guarded by his devoted personal assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) and a small army of personal guards. As soon as McGregor arrives, it is clear that all is not right. Lang’s world is under siege by the media in the wake of accusations of war crimes by a former colleague who plans to bring him before the International Criminal Court (which he can’t do unless Lang leaves the U.S., which does not recognize the ICC). Whether or not Lang is actually guilty of such crimes is left tantalizing vague, which drives McGregor’s writer to go beyond the normal call of duty to investigate: Is he writing the memoirs of a misunderstood politician or a moral monster?
In this regard, the casting of Pierce Brosnan is brilliant because he brings to the role an already finely tuned sense of both glamour and unflappability (this is, after all, the man who played James Bond in four movies). Brosnan’s turn as Lang is a sharply etched portrait of political expediency; his rugged good looks and disarming charm can be both the natural affinities of a good guy or a carefully prescribed mask behind which evil can do its worst. Fully aligned with McGregor’s naïf, we are stuck in the position of utter confusion, attempting to make sense of a series of seemingly conflicting developments that involve Lang’s no-nonsense, long-suffering wife (Olivia Williams), the woman who first drew him into politics; Cattrall’s seemingly malevolent assistant (she is just too protective to not have an agenda); and later a Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson) whose wildly out-of-place piece in the jigsaw puzzle makes him either the ultimate red herring or the key to the mystery. For his part, McGregor holds the center of the film, remaining just remote enough to justify his nameless status while also drawing us into his perspective, standing in, as it were, for the curious viewer who wants to know the horrible truth but doesn’t think about the price that might be paid (the film’s denouement is foreshadowed in the darkly comic image of one of Lang’s assistants trying to gather up leaves in a storm).
Polanski has worked this terrain before, and The Ghost Writer is evidence of a filmmaker in firm and complete command of his craft (although it does feature a fundamentally duh moment in which McGregor uncovers a “great secret” using Google). While not as fundamentally unnerving as Chinatown (1974), Polanski’s great masterpiece of dark secrets and unfathomable evil, the film burrows deep under your skin, not only in its narrative economy and suspense, but also in the way it effortlessly deploys elements of our current socio-political morass to suggest the ways in which the banality of evil currently operate without ever seeming schematic or preachy. It doesn’t seem like Polanski is trying to make any “grand statement” about our state of affairs in the era of 9/11 and the Iraq War, but it is hard to escape the ways in which those issues feed into and off of his fictional mystery thriller, imbuing it with a sense of urgency that finds its powerfully despondent apotheosis not in the solution to the mystery (which nevertheless hits us like the proverbial ton of bricks), but in the aftermath, which unveils the conspiracy, but leaves us with a pile of wind-blown papers (remember those leaves) as a stand-in for the ultimate futility of it all.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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