The Ghost Writer
Polanski in Fine If Not Top Form
From the opening shot of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” (opening February 26 at Landmark’s Hillcrest and La Jolla Village Cinemas) there’s an ominous sense of foreboding hanging over the film.
“The Ghost Writer,” “Shutter Island,” and the upcoming “Red Riding” are all films that cannot be called conventional horror films yet all three create such a relentless sense of unease and discomfort that the end result is akin to the kind of dread you might find in a horror flick. But the terror is more subtle and intellectual.
In “The Ghost Writer” Polanski is in fine if not top form playing with themes and ideas that have commanded his attention in the past. Polanski has been in the news recently since he missed the premiere of his film at the Berlin Film Festival since he remains under house arrest in Switzerland some three decades after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old and then fleeing the U.S. So as the legal controversy over his crimes and possible extradition continue to garner media attention, one can see certain aspects of his private life reflected in the events of his latest film.
A fittingly unnamed ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan who is so much better playing a prick than Bond). The previous ghost turned up dead, an apparent accident, and the new writer must finish the memoirs in a hurry as Lang gets caught up in allegations of human rights abuses in his war on terror and of being a lackey for the Americans. (In the media frenzy over the charges and in Lang’s decision on whether or not to return home to face actual legal charges you can see some of Polanski’s own life.)
But the new ghost writer starts to uncover some information that suggests Lang has not been entirely honest in his literary revelations. So the writer sets off on an investigation of his own. But he’s not driven by any burning moral agenda to uncover the truth and see justice done. Instead he seems determined to find the best story to tell and in a sense is only doing his job as a writer to find the most compelling narrative – even if that quest endangers his life.
“The Ghost Writer” is an elegant thriller that might disappoint filmgoers expecting something more action packed and less layered. But Polanski excels at slowly ratcheting up tension and creating more of a psychological thriller in which threats are more implied than shown. The film seems under a constant overcast gloom; the only light is artificial and people are often bundled up under jackets that reflect layers of deceit as well. Polanski and director of photography Pawel Edelman create discomfort with the damp, gray colors. They find a great office for the ghost to work in at Lang’s house that has a huge picture window from floor to ceiling but it looks out on a gray, uninviting beach and ocean and when MacGregor sits in the office chair he seems in danger of falling off the frame into that hostile looking environment.
Things are not always what they seem in “The Ghost Writer,” and actors like Tom Wilkinson (as a professor who went to school with Lang) is particularly good at presenting one face and suggesting something completely different under the polite exterior. Brosnan is surprising as Lang, a man whose skill as an actor has obviously helped him in his political career. McGregor, befitting the invisibility of his character, is effective but not showy. Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife also stands out.
“The Ghost Writer” (rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference) conveys a sense of underlying corruption and duplicity that’s so deep and ingrained that it’s unlikely to ever go away and that is something that should truly scare you.
Companion viewing: “The Ninth Gate,” “Repulsion,” “Roman de Gare,” “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”