The Ghost Writer (2010)
Sometimes coincidences strike and a film can find its modest release enveloped in a maelstrom not of its own making. Roman Polanski’s new film The Ghost arrived in US shores just as a certain ex-British Prime Minister found himself under questioning for past events that some have alleged as war crimes – that’s number one. Prior to this event a public figure, reviled in some quarters found himself under house arrest for unconvicted crimes a continent away – that sounds familiar. Thirdly, just a a few weeks ago our previous figure of scorn announced that his blood spattered memoirs would be published (vomit inducingly called ‘The Journey‘, I may have added the blood bit) in September of this year, an announcement made a week or so prior to The Ghost’s wider US release – how’s that for life imitating art? I’m almost as mystified by the change in the films title, normally the truncation from The Ghost Writer to The Ghost would be an amendment made for the American market to reduce any audience interpretation that it was a film about literature and therefore dull rather than the reverse, perhaps its lacklustre performance in the US – $12 million and counting after a month in wide release – has convinced its backers to do everything it can to recoup its budget. In preparation for this early awaited and slippery new film I embarked a mini-season of Polanski’s work – Bitter Moon, Frantic, Repulsion, What? and The Pianist – as well as tucking into this well-regarded and even-handed biography. Whatever you want to call it The Ghost is an intriguing and arresting piece of work due in part to its contemporary resonance as well as its expertly handled delivery, this is assuredly Polanski’s most directly entertaining film for years.
In Ewan McGregor’s best performance of recent memory he is a nameless, London-based ghost writer, a vaguely insolent hack who is usually drafted in to scribe the biographies of inconsequential sport or media figures. Ewan hits the big time and a change of career direction when his agent lands him an interview with the prestigious Soho production house that is handling the memoirs of Andrew Lang (a curious but ultimately miscast Pierce Brosnan), a recently retired British Prime Minister whose embrace and slavish devotion to the War on Terror ™ has left him an isolated figure on the remote peninsula of Martha’s Vineyard. Our ghost is despatched to recast the uncompleted manuscript at this eerie archipelago with only the assistance of the ex-PM’s Chief of Staff Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and redolent wife Ruth (Olivia Williams in a film stealing performance) to rely on, a task that is soon overtaken by a series of allegations that exposes Lang’s alleged collusion in ordering Al Quadi suspects to be tortured after extraordinary rendition flights are allowed to bypass UK airspace. More sinister tremblings are afoot when the Ghost begins to unearth the unconvincing circumstances of his predecessors apparent suicide by drowning and a slowly evolving conspiracy begins to be illuminated….
It’s nice, for a change, to be treated like an adult at the cinema. The Ghost takes its time to establish a sense of tone and atmosphere which one assumes is lifted from the Robert Harris penned source material, it is quite a liberating experience to luxuriate in a film that takes care with its poised compositions, a film with the nerve to let scenes build and breathe, a film with restrained and almost classical technique as opposed to the dizzying, multi-perspective fast cutting designs that remain the contemporary standard. As you can see in that HD trailer linked above the film has a de-saturated sheen which provide a chilly tone to the unsettling proceedings, an achievement matched by the films exterior photography all being achieved through CGI techniques to combine to the two elements as seen in the first photo above. In a manner similar to the opening of Shutter Island and the computer engendered journey to the island this signals a slightly unreal friction to the viewer’s perspective, something is not quite right but you can’t quite identify the source of the disruption. The film is funnier than anticipated, particularly with Ewan’s dialogue and his unsuccessful flirting with Amelia being constantly rebuffed and there are a few gags made at the expense of Bliar, sorry that should be Lang’s falsity of demeanour. The film works best as a mystery story, a brooding tale told through the eyes of the ‘ghost’ without any exterior knowledge or perspectives from other characters, we only see and experience what the ghost sees and discovers as to not deviate from the dark and dangerous journey that our avatar is progressing. As a conspiracy expose its final revelations are as dodgy as the infamous dodgy dossier but as an entertaining, engrossing thriller then this ghost can’t be busted.
Some spoilers in this paragraph so beware – There is an undercurrent of covert menace that put me in mind of certain movements in Eyes Wide Shut, one scene where the ghost hesitantly interviews a subtly intimidating Tom Wilkinson is quite creepy, particularly as in a moment of Hitchcockian inspired genius our hero has been directed to this isolated woodland abode through the last GPS recorded movements of the hire car that his predecessor followed before turning up dead. It’s a great use of technology to drive forward the plot and the film also feels realistic with its use of web searches, a sense of authenticity that is all too rare these days as some of those horrendously designed conspiracy theory sites crop up as the investigation deepens. The Macguffin is the manuscript, according to Harris ‘a character in its own right’ within which the films mysteries are contained, a simile I suspect that Polanski is using to suggest the submersion of truth and fiction in the written word, (with obvious allusions to the manuscripts presented as the justifications for conflict and theft) the battle of alternate interpretations of the same material, the idea that even authorial intent cannot be regarded as the beacon of universal truth in a post-structualist universe – there are some curious connections to his underappreciated The Ninth Gate here I’m sure. It was also a pleasant shock to see Eli Wallach – the Ugly – crop up in a short cameo role as a wizened inhabitant of Martha’s Vineyard and an almost unrecognisable James Belushi appear in an opening scene as one of the publishing executive – it took me a good thirty seconds to identify him and boy does he look different. In a rather rushed but still effective fashion the film culminates on a very bleak, dare I say it Romanesque note that puts one in mind of the denouement to Chinatown, he’s clearly a man who hasn’t lost his cynicism with his advancing years.
Polanski is a curious figure, he is the director of one undisputed masterpiece – Chinatown – and a raft of superb films, Repulsion, Frantic and The Pianist which having watched again I’d argue is a stronger and more affecting Holocaust film than Schindler’s List by virtue of not entertaining any of that films more crass moments. There is a vein of the macabre, a melancholy that coupled with an emphasis on sexual neurosis and jealousy that runs rampant throughout his work make for an uncomfortable but enticing marriage, having got half through that biography its not difficult to see where those fascinations spring from – he was and is a dirty old bugger. He was also something of the Tarantino if his age, appearing on the celebrity talk-show circuit and cropping up in the tabloid press with regular aplomb, often to the detriment of his projects. On set he was one of those tyrant directors, considering himself above mixing with the gaffers and grips, delegating such unpleasant interactions to his AD’s. He was also one of those tyrants, a director who was unafraid to wake up to an actor or more frequently actress whom he felt was not providing the necessary emotional investment in a scene, slap them across the face to provoke a reaction, walk back to his chair and bark ‘Action’ – nice. For my money his achievements are equalled by his failures, Bitter Moon is a terrible, almost embarrassing piece of work and if memory my puny memory serves both Pirates and the clumsily titled The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me But My Teeth Are In Your Neck are dull misfires. Make sure you give both Rosemarys Baby and Death & The Maiden a look if your interest is piqued. So, that’s the end of another season, inspired by my recent The Wild Bunch Blu-Ray revelation I’m embarking on a short Peckinpah season, there are a couple of movies I’ve never seen – Junior Bonner and The Ballad of Cable Hogue which seem apt to connect with revisits of Major Dundee and Ride The High Country for a wider retrospective.