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Ghost Writer, The

dir: Roman Polanski
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Okay, okay, I’ll get this out of the way right from the start: yes, Roman Polanski is a scumbag, and, no, I’m not condoning anything he’s ever done or said, nor am I exonerating him by watching and reviewing one of his films. No, it’s not the moral equivalence argument. No, I’m not saying that his art justifies anything he’s ever done.

And yes, Hitler’s watercolour paintings were okay, not great, but not awful either.

So if I acknowledge that Roman Polanski is worse than a million Hitlers, will you let me just review the fucking film?

The Ghost Writer is so old school that it really does feel like a throwback. If it wasn’t for some of the technology involved, like mobile phones, GPS and memory sticks, the flick could have been indistinguishable from something set or made in the 70s. It’s a very 70s flick, regardless of some of the subject matter.

It’s 70s because it’s languid, paranoid and, despite some of the wintery open spaces, claustrophobic. I guess it makes sense that someone like Polanski could capture that feeling because a) the 70s were his heyday and b) he can probably relate to a main character feeling under siege from the media and the courts. Just a guess, there.

Polanski clearly has the time on his hands and the sensibility to craft something like this so it plays out slowly, with the rate of revelation being akin to something like the gradual movement of Earth’s continents away from each other. In some ways watching this flick is like standing underneath an iceberg with a glass of some fine spirits, waiting for a small chunk of ice to just tumble of its own accord into your tumbler. Sure, it might happen eventually, but is it worth the wait?

This is a film more to be appreciated than liked, in that it does have an interesting story. The breadcrumb trail of plot chugs along and complicates things nicely, but it doesn’t really feel like there’s that much at stake until the very end, where the plot comes to its natural (and again, very 70s) resolution.

A hack, never named ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is brought in to help the former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) make his memoirs more memorable, and marketable. The previous ghost writer working on them died under mysterious circumstances, drowning during a ferry crossing from the isolated chunk of the Massachusetts coast where he was staying (though, for obvious reasons, since Polanski can’t set foot in the States without being arrested, it was shot in Germany.)

That’s on the US eastern seaboard, if the geography is confusing for you. Why is the former UK Prime Minister holed up in America? Right you ask, it’s because there’s trouble brewing, allegations flying that during his reign of terror, he illegally outsourced the torturing of British nationals, and he is expected to have to answer to the International Criminal Court for his war crimes, the dirty dog.

Now, the likelihood of a British head of state being persecuted for something so wonderful is a major implausibility, I know, but you have to appreciate that this flick occurs in a landscape very much created to give it currency with world events, especially the two ongoing wars, and the more general state of emergency in relation to terrorism.

The beleaguered ex-PM is not the main character, however. It’s the ghost writer, who spends his time reading the cumbersome tome already produced, and suggests ways in which it can be smartened up in order to delight the kinds of people who read these deathly dull self-back pattings.

Along the way, he notices some strange things. The first thing is that while the place the relevant people are staying is palatial from the inside, it looks like a beach fort. I kept expecting the Normandy survivors to stage a creaky re-enactment at any moment. The tremendous level of security around Lang is matched only by the tremendous level of lunatic protesters who implausibly picket his domain.

He, the ghost, as he keeps telling everyone when asked, keeps bumping up against the echoes of his predecessor, and, accidentally discovers pieces of information that lead him down the same paths that his predecessor took, we are meant to hope, towards a different end.

The most surprising revelation in the flick, to me, was that Eli Wallach is still alive. I had no idea. He has a small cameo role as a convenient exposition guy, giving the protagonist more clues, without evidence, that the previous ghost writer’s death was fishy. That this guy played Tuco in Good, The Bad and the Ugly nearly half a century ago, and that he’s still working today, is staggering to me. Although, from the look of him, I’d be advising his loved ones to tell him how wonderful he is now while they’ve got the chance to get into the will. There’s not much time left.

The question becomes less whether or not the other chap was silenced deliberately, and becomes more what the secret is within the innocuous pages of the boring manuscript. And, in fact, is there a secret at all?

Unlike the protagonists of other, similar kinds of mysteries, the ghost writer doesn’t really seem compelled to find out the truth because of any pressing need or deeply moral desire to find out whether Lang was responsible for war crimes or not. No servant of justice here. He seems, mostly, to be following this path because, hey, he’s on the path, and it’s something to do.

I mean, as wonderful as staying in that part of the world would be, clearly he gets bored, and the booze’s comforting power only goes so far.

The Ninth Gate is one of the more hated flicks Polanski has been responsible for, and this reminded me a lot of it. It has that similar (mostly) calm, casual chugging along to an absurd conclusion, with crumb stolidly leading to the next crumb along the path to understanding. It also, not coincidentally, reminded me of the last part of the House of Cards trilogy, a miniseries of epically devilish proportions representing the rise and fall of a masterfully Machiavellian prime minister. The Final Cut has many echoes with what happens here.

The big revelations are, in a way, quite quaint. They’re a throwback almost to the Cold War era, and they made me feel a bit nostalgic for these kinds of stories, though, when they’re meshed together with stuff sounding like it was out of a Michael Moore documentary(with requisite name changes for the Carlisle Group, Bilderburg, Halliburton etc) it becomes almost tongue-in-cheek.

Mostly, since everything proceeds in such a stately manner, it comes off feeling a bit blank, but I can appreciate that. I don’t need a flick to tell me with every passing frame how and what I’m supposed to be feeling about everything. I also appreciate the longer takes and scenes that are a Polanski trademark (at least in this age of split-second edits).

I guess ultimately I came out of it all feeling somewhat unaffected, even as I appreciated the level of skill involved in telling the story so well, and keeping it moving without sacrificing sensibility. The acting is all uniformly excellent, with Ewan delivering the blank, sardonic persona these kinds of flicks demand. Olivia Williams plays a version of Lady Macbeth / Cherie Blair that is quite wonderful, seeming like that obligatory woman behind the successful man we always hear about. Pierce Brosnan nails the part of an intelligent, shallow, egomaniacal show pony whose remaining obsession is reclaiming his legacy, and defusing the hatred that accompanies his every appearance in public. One of the masterstrokes he delivers in revealing his character’s weakness is this childish wave he gives his wife every time he disembarks from a plane.

The interactions between ghost and ex-PM are pretty strong, but they constitute very few minutes of screen time. The rest is spent with him either following the trail, or becoming gradually more and more compromised in his collusion with these people.

Sure, $250,000 is a lot of money, which is what he’s supposed to get paid for completing the memoirs, but finding out who’s been pulling whose strings and for how long is meant to be far more interesting. And if he gets laid along the way, well, what’s the harm in that?

The ending is wry, and well handled, and suitably macabre for something that has that old-school clandestine services feel. It’s unsatisfying in some ways, but then, that’s probably a good thing. Not everything should end with the hero killing everybody who ever pissed him off or ever looked at him funny.

It’s interesting. That’s about all I’ve got left to say about it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone apart from your parents, who would probably love it, the old dears. The rest of you should go hire a Twilight flick I guess, or watch a Crank movie instead for a bit of excitement, because you’re certainly not going to get it here.

6 times there are some women, whether they’re publicists, PM’s wives or CIA operatives, that you really shouldn’t be sleeping with out of 10

“Some peace protesters are trying to kill me!” – cheeky bugger, The Ghost Writer.