Based on a terrific book by Richard Harris, The Ghost Writer is an exercise in European thriller plotting and cinematography, even though most of it takes place on Cape Cod here in the United States. Directed by the great – and troubling – Roman Polanski, it has a pace that turned off many filmgoers, unfolding slowly and occasionally with the feel of a stage play, but I really liked it quite a bit.
The story revolves around former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (well played by Pierce Brosnan) who is borrowing his publisher’s Cape Cod estate to write his memoirs. As is common with these sort of politico memoirs, Rhinehart Publishing hired a ghost writer, a professional who can turn notes and reminiscences into a coherent, readable and engaging narrative. Problem is, the ghost writer has died in rather mysterious circumstances.
Enter frustrated writer Ewan McGregor, who upon being asked by the publisher why he would be a good choice for the replacement ghost writer, explains that he brings nothing to the project. But it’s that very lack of bias, of agenda, that lands him the job, and a cherry job it is, with a paycheck of $250,000 for a month’s worth of work.
The film unfolds gradually and it’s one of a small number of thrillers where a second viewing will reveal much more about the story progression (another example: The Spanish Prisoner). I really enjoyed The Ghost Writer and felt that the visuals, the acting and the windswept setting all contributed to an unsettling but intriguing cinematic experience.
Hitchcock was a master at taking a common scene and making it appear ominous, giving us reason to pause and reflect on how much we assume that a particular setting or place is safe without any real basis. Think of Mt. Rushmore in the brilliant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Polanski#Sexual_assault_case” target=”_blankNorth by Northwest, or even the lovely seaside village of Bodega Bay, transformed from an idyllic spot into a nightmare in The Birds. In a similar manner, the sailboats and nautical setting of Cape Cod transforms from warm and inviting into a dark, sinister winter spot with Polanski at the helm and cinematographer Pawel Edelman.
The estate is gorgeous, but sterile and cold, as cold as the wind blowing off the Atlantic and whipping the long grass back and forth through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Polanski has subtle visual elements that act as visual metaphors for the entire story, and the one I found most striking was the groundskeeper, who continually sought a neat, debris-free deck even as the winds picked the leaves out of his wheelbarrow and scattered them around. Man tries to control his environment, but ultimately it’s all in illusion.
And therein is the main story of The Ghost Writer too: While he was Prime Minister, we learn that Adam Lang was not a nice man, and that some of his decisions — notably his relationship and complicitness with the United States anti-terrorism activities — were tantamount to war crimes. Indeed, the Hague Commission on War Crimes begins to investigate some of the decisions he made in office, as a media circus descends on Cape Cod to learn more.
Ewan McGregor examines the existing manuscript
Lang’s long suffering wife Ruth (understatedly played by Olivia Williams) appears to be the power behind the proverbial throne, as it’s clear that Lang is charismatic, but not particularly intelligent. Surely someone must have helped him achieve his tremendous success when he was more interested in chasing pretty girls than politics.
His assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) is the “ice queen” who runs his staff and keeps everything together, whether it’s typing up transcripts of McGregor’s interviews or ensuring the security of the existing manuscript. She’s also Lang’s lover, but in a typically understated fashion, that’s unveiled through accusation and what’s not said, not through any sexually explicit scenes.
There’s much more than meets the eye and it isn’t until the last five minutes of the film that the story is fully revealed, though by that point I suspect most viewers have a sense of who played what role in Lang’s rise to power. Still, it’s a satisfying comeuppance and the last few seconds are shocking and yet not entirely unexpected. ‘nuf said on that.
A good friend of mine complained that he felt The Ghost Writer was at times more of a stage play than a thriller film, and I can see his point. There are definitely scenes where they’re all sitting around talking and it does feel a bit like they’re actors in a play rather than the characters trying to understand a complex situation, but I found it enjoyable and a throwback to classic thrillers. It’s certainly a change of pace from the Hollywood version of a thriller, where it’s all about computer graphics and special effects.
Finally, I can’t write this review without saying that it bothers me that Roman Polanski is the director. He’s a brilliant film-maker, but his involvement leaves me with the question of when do you separate out the troubling behaviors and actions of an individual from his art? As father to a thirteen-year-old daughter, there are additional levels of this. (You can learn more about Polanski’s remarkable and troubling back story on Wikipedia
Still, The Ghost Writer was a good, well plotted, thoughtful thriller based on a book that I really enjoyed when I read it. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s quite enjoyable and has the kind of feel to it that is too uncommonly seen in the local cineplex.