Ghost Writer, The (France/Germany/United Kingdom, 2010)

February 16, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ghost Writer, The Poster

The Ghost Writer is a reminder that, regardless of his real-life problems, Roman Polanski can still craft compelling thrillers. This isn't Chinatown, but it doesn't need to be. Based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, it's a fictional tale unambiguously designed to validate various conspiracy theories that have been in existence since the war in Iraq began. The film is effectively paced and does not suffer from the awkward compression problems that sometimes accompany the stripping down of complex novels into two hour motion pictures. There are times when the movie relies upon hard-to-swallow coincidences to propel the narrative forward (the oh-so-convenient appearance of Eli Wallach being one example) but, on the whole, The Ghost Writer holds together. This is especially remarkable when one considers that a significant portion of the post-production was done by Polanski while under arrest.

The film opens with an unoccupied car left abandoned on a ferry while a body washes up on a nearby beach near the Massachusetts retreat of ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that the dead man was the ghost writer of Lang's autobiography and a replacement has to be found quickly in order to ensure the publication date doesn't slip. The job goes to the movie's unnamed protagonist (Ewan McGregor), who finds himself thrust into the midst of a maelstrom of personal and political crises. Lang is about to be charged by the World Court for crimes against humanity, his former close political ally Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh) has turned against him, and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), has lost patience over his brazen affair with his assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). As the Ghost Writer begins to dig, he uncovers information that puts his life in danger.

Lang represents a Prime Minister in the Tony Blair mold and the story postulates how Blair might have come to support George W. Bush's war in Iraq. There's a Haliburton-inspired company and various unsavory characters skulking in the background. The Ghost Writer neither claims to be representing the truth nor to be based on actual events, but it's obvious where its roots are buried. Nonetheless, some of the best thrillers have developed from fictionalized accounts of historical events. Polanski also pokes fun at his own situation. After Lang has been accused of crimes against humanity, he realizes he must remain in the United States since it's one of the few countries that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the court. As long as he's in America, he can be a free man; if he returns to the U.K., he will be arrested upon arrival. The irony of incorporating this story element must have been too delicious for Polanksi to bypass. (Whether it's in good taste is another matter altogether.)

The action/thriller aspects are handled expertly. The chase sequences are involving. There's never a sense that the protagonist is invulnerable - he's far from a superhero. The film keeps us guessing for a while and, even once we think we have figured out what's going on, the possibility exists that we're misreading something. There are two twists in the final act that, although not changing the essential backbone of the story, divorce The Ghost Writer from some of the most common conventions of this sort of thriller.

Ewan McGregor plays (or underplays) the sort of low-key role he has become comfortable with in his post-Star Wars career - a slightly wimpy guy who gets sucked into something because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Often after thinking it's the right place and the right time.) Pierce Brosnan has the requisite good looks and charm to allow us to believe he was once a Prime Minister; I didn't think of 007 once during the course of the movie, which shows that Brosnan has moved on in ways his predecessors were unable to do. (Connery, despite shedding the role in the early '70s, found that it dogged him to the day of his retirement.) Olivia Williams is a little scary as the cold, calculating silent power behind her husband. Only Kim Cattrall strikes a wrong note. The superficiality of her performance is out-of-step with the importance of the role. A lot of familiar faces show up in small roles: Jim Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, and - most memorably - Tom Wilkinson.

A word must be said about the look of the film. Most of it transpires in New England and, unless Polanski found a way to sneak into the United States without anyone knowing, he found a note-perfect stand-in. Maybe denizens of the real Cape Cod will recognize the differences, but I was fooled. The same holds true with scenes set in London - another location where, if I am not mistaken, Polanski needed to avoid (at least at the time). Whatever chicanery he employed to clone Massachusetts and London, it was expertly done.

As with most political thrillers, The Ghost Writer emphasizes plot development and atmosphere over action. It's an "adult" thriller as opposed to one designed for viewers suffering from ADD. The running time, which clocks in at a shade over two hours, seems a little on the long side. Overall, however, it's a successful endeavor from a filmmaker whose future behind-the-camera enterprises are in doubt.

Ghost Writer, The (France/Germany/United Kingdom, 2010)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2010-02-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1