March 18, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Investigating a possible war criminal?
There's an app for that.

Grade: A –

Director: Roman Polanski

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkerson, and Olivia Williams

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes

Roman Polanski continues to use the silver screen to both explicate and exorcise his personal demons. From surviving Nazi persecution as a child in the Krak√≥w ghetto to the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family to his conviction – and subsequent flight from sentencing – for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, Polanski’s real-life travails have informed and defined his film oeuvre.

Reportedly, Polanski had to complete editing of The Ghost Writer from the confines of a jail cell and then under house arrest at his Swiss chalet as he fights extradition back to the United States. In his grand return to the modern thriller (his first since 1988’s Frantic), a former British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), finds himself living as a virtual exile in a foreign land, partly to escape prosecution for legitimate charges nonetheless brought in a kangaroo court by accusers with duplicitous motives. Sound familiar? There is a lot more than a Napoleon complex going on in Polanski’s mind when Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), compares her husband’s hermetic life on a windswept patch of Martha’s Vineyard to Bonaparte’s banishment to the island of St. Helena.

That other unique and proverbial Polanski archetype – the inquisitive, self-assured loner who foolhardily believes he has a grasp on matters that are actually well beyond his comprehension – comes in the form of a nameless author credited as “The Ghost” (Ewan McGregor), hired as a replacement ghostwriter for Lang’s memoirs after the original scribe met an untimely death.

Lang is under investigation for sanctioning war crimes while in office, chiefly acts of rendition against terrorist suspects, and this premise propels the ghostwriter’s eventual efforts to connect the dots between his predecessor’s demise and the high-stakes political intrigue at play. It is worth comparing Polanski’s use of current events to Green Zone, Paul Greengrass’ polemical Iraq War actioner. Greengrass created fictitious characters and a plot whose unrealized purpose was to elucidate its real-life backdrop. By contrast, Polanski shrewdly exploits a topical controversy solely to service a fictional storyline, in the same way the real battle over water rights in California was mere window-dressing for the personal mystery and psychological drama at the center of Polanski’s Chinatown.

The Ghost Writer thrives on atmospherics, artistry, and acting. Polanski’s skills as a visual virtuoso remain in fine form. He brackets Ghost Writer with silent images portending unseen deaths – the first a shot of an abandoned car sitting alone on a ferry boat intercut with a body washed ashore bobbing in the surf; the last the sublime sight of hundreds of pieces of paper gradually being blown into view as they progressively litter a city street. In between, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Harris – adapting his own novel, The Ghost – fashion a plot that is both morose and pulpy. Accented by Alexandre Desplat’s haunting, orchestral score, Polanski constructs set pieces so tense and finely tuned that they would be labeled “Hitchcockian” if this was any other director.

McGregor reclaims much of his lost luster, ably supplying his role with the right blend of self-assuredness and vulnerability. Brosnan plays Lang as a cross between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, while Williams is mesmerizing as the emotionally bruised but politically savvy first lady (shades of Hilary?). There are also sharp supporting turns from Kim Cattrall as Lang’s longtime assistant (and perhaps more), Timothy Hutton, James Belushi, Eli Wallach, and Tom Wilkinson as one of Lang’s shadowy acquaintances.

But the real star is Polanski. Whatever his personal travails, he remains a master filmmaker. And, neo-noirs like The Ghost Writer are not only his distinctive wheelhouse, but also a welcome throwback to clever, taut political-conspiracy thrillers. This is the old stuff…this is the good stuff.

Neil Morris

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