The Ghost Writer
2010, PG-13, 128 min. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 26, 2010
Polanski appears to be back in the saddle with his new political mystery thriller, which refreshes aspects of what we like best in his work yet doesn’t surpass the excitement of his greatest achievements. The Ghost Writer hasn’t the complexity or breadth of such stunners as Chinatown or The Pianist, but it is nevertheless a solidly built little roundelay of intrigue with a veracity that seems torn from newspaper headlines. (And here, I’m talking specifically about headlines regarding politicians such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who’s been slammed for his faithful support of President Bush’s war in Iraq and our government’s policies on terrorist interrogations and international rendition. The headlines regarding Polanski’s personal legal woes are not part of the analysis of this movie, other than an acknowledgement that Polanski’s normal post-production process experienced constraints due to the director’s well-publicized house arrest.) The Ghost Writer begins in classic mystery form with a corpse washing up on the beach. The dead man turns out to have been the ghostwriter for the unwieldy memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan, presumably giving Peter Morgan some well-deserved time off from this particular acting beat). A replacement (McGregor) is hastily hired and the film’s only name for him is the Ghost. Quick, jejune, and seemingly devoid of any political bent or artistic vanity (his last ghosting job was a magician’s bio titled I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered), the Ghost is hurried off on an evening flight to Lang’s island hideaway somewhere off the eastern coast of the U.S. Here the intrigue steadily mounts while the Ghost is drawn into its all-consuming vortex. The film’s production design plays a major role in creating the story’s overall sense of inhospitable tensions. The cold, windy, and largely barren landscape is unwelcoming, and the Langs’ angular modern house stands in sharp contrast to the wild, rocky environs which surround it. The home’s security features are state-of-the-art, its wall-length picture windows create terrifically unsteadying trompe l’oeils, and the daily crowd of protesters at its gates create a flogging gauntlet through which all comers to the estate must pass. Lang’s assistant (Sex and the City’s Catrell, showing her dramatic chops and sporting a decent British accent) seems suspicious; Lang’s wife (Wilde) appears welcoming yet controlling. And delight of all delights, movie veteran Wallach shows up for a scene as one of the island’s weather-beaten old-timers. The Ghost Writer’s mystery is a little too easy to disentangle (the screenplay was written by Robert Harris and Polanski, and adapted from Harris’ novel), although that’s from the perspective of an outsider and not the Ghost in the midst of the whirlwind. You’re likely to be drawn in by the film’s sleek elegance alone and forget about its mysterious underpinnings.