Movie Review – The Ghost Writer (2010)

by NIR SHALEV

Being exiled for over thirty years hadn’t hindered Roman Polanski’s career in the slightest bit. As a matter of fact, The Pianist (2002) and Ghost Writer are easily two of his greatest movies. Add those to Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac (1966), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Chinatown (1974) and now we’re cooking with fire. Clearly he’s a master filmmaker, a famous auteur, and a media darling but that’s because when he’d created a great thriller early in his career he’d stuck to making the best thrillers from then on.

Ewan McGregor (credited as The Ghost on IMDB) is tasked with completing the memoirs of ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) because the original ghost writer was found drowned on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard. Flying from England to the U.S., McGregor is an experienced ghost writer but is completely out of the loop on politics, due to a lack of interest in the subject. He’s not dumb, he’s just naive and that’s a character trait that the film introduces from early on. Aside from that and having a bit of an ego those are the only character traits he possesses throughout the entirety of the film. Adam Lang on the other hand is much like Tony Blair and we learn a lot about him throughout the film because The Ghost must learn about him also.

The Ghost finds out about Lang’s background, dating back to the early 1970s and his enrollment in Cambridge University as an actor, before the film shifts gears back to the present. Lang is embroiled in a scandal involving the Iraq War and might be tried in court as a war criminal. The Ghost is uninterested in Lang’s present situation or the politics surrounding him but cannot but be drawn back to it every time he dabbles in Lang’s past.

Adam’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is supportive of her husband but can be fragile at times. She also sometimes wears the pants in the relationship and her husband takes her advice quite often; it’s always quid pro quo between them. Adam’s personal secretary Amelia (Kim Cattrall) is always present but doesn’t seem to be part of the situation as much as Ruth.

In order to investigate the past, The Ghost finds hidden photos of Adam from his university days. The photo brings The Ghost to an old Cambridge buddy of Adam’s, Professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson). Paul is introduced in the second act of the film and is responsible greatly to the outcome of the third act so I won’t elaborate on his part in the drama. But I will mention that Wilkinson’s performance is that of a great Polanski “potential villain” because in Polanski’s thrillers every character is a potential villain and Professor Emmet’s a great candidate for being the most sinister without having to try hard.

I haven’t the slightest complaint to make about the performances. McGregor plays a realistic human being that is embroiled in something that he doesn’t understand because he’s investigating the past and the present simultaneously, and he grows slightly paranoid, convincingly like anyone else would. Pierce Brosnan is a pleasure to watch, whether he’s grinning like an idiot or simply yelling for effect. Wilkinson’s a scene stealer and there are a couple of other bit parts, no longer than five minutes each that involve the forgotten Eli Wallach and James Belushi.

Ghost Writer opens with a fairy-boat docking on Martha’s Vineyard and on it is an SUV that hasn’t a driver on board. All of its doors are locked and its alarm system is active. Then we cut to a far off beach with a body floating in the water, later to be discovered as the first ghost writer working for Adam Lang. Such a powerful image is left alone and unquestioned until the third act of the film and that’s how and why this movie works so well. It provides us with images not containing any information and when we’re on the verge of forgetting all about them, Polanski reminds us of the aforementioned images and thrusts simple explanations that assist the film’s exposition. It’s never plot heavy and it’s never empty.

The imagery in the film is spectacular. As expected from Roman Polanski, this is a gorgeously shot film, possibly shot in digital but all the colors are vibrant and the grays are menacing; the film in general, sports a lot of gray tones. The beach house that belongs to the Langs has gray stone and steel interiors and exteriors and throughout the film, the sky is gray with clouds. But it’s not a dark or brooding picture because it’s filled with a lot of humor, and I mean a lot, and the compositions are gorgeous and, without exaggeration, perfect.

There’s a certain shot in Rosemary’s Baby that depicts a man sitting on a bed but the camera is situated in the hallway and we only see half of the man. We try to lean to one side in order see what’s inside the room but can’t quite make it. Such is a famous device used by Polanski throughout the decades and I lost count of how many times I saw that type of shot in this film. But every time that it was used it carried a purpose, it explored character traits and was always advancing the plot somehow. It’s rather brilliant.

The conspiracy is good, the tension is presented with style, and the story is very well rounded off. Labeling this movie a film noir would be wrong but it does have a snaking plot that’s a lot of fun and here’s a great throwback to good ‘ol detective movies that star relatively likable anti-heroes. And kudos to Roman Polanski for being able to make great movies anywhere in the world while sticking to his great sense of style and ability to tell interesting stories.

4 stars

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