The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer reconfigures his magnum opus, Chinatown, for the modern era. Like Jake Gittes, the unnamed protagonist (Ewan McGregor) is an acerbic, indifferent middle class working man who finds himself wading into a conspiracy that dwarfs him until he cannot hope to get the truth out. The difference is scale: made in the ’70s and set in the ’30s, Chinatown was about the total corruption of city government, collusion between business and authority until the aristocracy could do as it damn well pleased. But The Ghost Writer takes place in the present, in a time when everything is multinational and conspiracies can be worldwide.
Ostensibly about a titular ghost writer hired to edit the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, following the death of his first ghost, Polanski’s thriller quickly exposes its hilariously off-kilter setup for the MacGuffin it is. Instead, he delves into daring political material, taking the knowledge of America’s involvement in installing puppet leaders in Third World nations to a terrifying possibility: what if the United States performed similar covert operations to ensure the cooperation of our strongest allies, and is that not why they are our allies to begin with?
We travel to meet Lang in a hideaway island off Martha’s Vineyard, in a locked-down complex with far too much security to protect the manuscript of a memoir that the Ghost himself notes no one will want to read anyway. Soon, however, the reason for the isolation becomes clear: back in the UK, Lang faces charges for war crimes for allegedly turning over British citizens of Arab descent to the US for torture. The Ghost, who railed against political soft shoeing in the memoirs of public officials, suddenly finds himself a part of Lang’s inner circle, even drawing up a press release to deflect this attention. As Lang’s assistant/mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall) tells him, “That makes you an accomplice.”
Like Scorsese’s Shutter Island with a political instead of emotional interest, The Ghost Writer above all else shows an aged director at the top of his visual game, reworking Hitchcock pictures like Notorious where Scorsese dabbled with Vertigo. Nothing moves quickly in The Ghost Writer, and each shot is as visually sumptuous as anything seen in the last few years. Polanski uses the mise-en-scene and lighting primarily to lay on the word ghost: light sources do not illuminate the darkness so much as create tiny balls of pale white light floating in the middle of pitch blackness. Lang’s compound conveys a purgatorial feel, always covered in clouds and a cold wind as wall-sized windows make it impossible sometimes to tell if people are inside the house or out and a servant constantly sweeps leaves into a wheelbarrow as the wind scatters them again. The opening montage alone, communicating the death of the first ghostwriter without showing any action, is a masterful way of documenting the idea of a ghost, showing all the signs of Mike’s death long before he finally gets to a shot of his corpse washing up on the island beach. And then there’s the playfulness, from a security drill going off just as the Ghost starts snooping, and a tracking shot at the end that last so long it becomes comical, until it keeps going and becomes tense once more.
Polanski also retains his gift for working with actors. Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach give fantastic cameos, while Brosnan perfectly captures Lang’s shameless self-promotion, his vacuous deflection of serious charges leveled against him. McGregor, one of the more reliable actors of his generation, does not make us care all that much about him as a person, though we’re not meant to. Instead, he serves as our proxy for shock and revulsion as he follows the clues to the truth. But it is Olivia Williams who steals the show as Lang’s wife, Ruth. Tasked with the most complex role, Williams plays Ruth as an ice queen, resentful of the political aspirations she sacrificed for her husband. The great irony of Polanski’s career, given his personal issues, is that, more than nearly any English-language director, he understands women. Just as he used his horror filmRepulsion to subvert the image of the Hitchcockian ice queen by showing how men like Hitchcock tortured her into her emotional distance, so too does he undermine the image of the politician’s wife. He gives Ruth an air of tragedy, a strong woman far more politically capable than her husband who had to become nothing but a prop because that was expected of her. And then Polanski undercuts the character yet once more, and suddenly Williams’ performance becomes even more layered.
On some level, Polanski intends The Ghost Writer to expose the hypocrisy of the United States, who demands his extradition so they might put his head on a stake yet are one of the few nations to refuse to recognize the International Criminal Court and extradite wanted people there (along with such places as Israel, North Korea and Iraq). On one hand, this is incisive, communicating the disgust of the director, who narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Poland as a child but lost his mother to the camp at Auschwitz, at America for so openly embracing war crimes as a foreign policy. This is more confrontational than nearly anything made about the War on Terror to this point, and his refusal to soften the message when so many Hollywood directors cannot commit to their supposed liberal screeds (depending on which pundit is discussing them) even as he never lapses into polemics makes for the best political thriller since perhaps the heyday of Alan J. Pakula’s ’70s work. On the other hand, it is yet another example of Polanski’s decades-long pity parade at being unable to travel where he pleases for bailing the States to escape from his rape sentence. He may have a point that his individual crime does not warrant the level of outrage that should be directed toward certain members of government would instantly receive life imprisonment from The Hague (when Polanski was a child, they’d be swinging from gibbets), but there is still a subtext of rampant arrogance that nags at me as a fan who would still like to see him brought to justice.
Still, there’s no denying the slow-burning thrill of a master at work, and Polanski is truly one of the greatest and most intuitive directors of all time. He never forces anything, leaving so much of the film out in the open that his scathing critiques only sink in later instead of hampering the plot with proselytizing. In the vein of masterpieces like All the President’s Men, The Insider and Zodiac, The Ghost Writer creates tension in the expectation of something happening, and when practically nothing ever does, we remain tense for fear that we’ve missed something, and the film is not empty just because it continues to lead you on until you reach the end and realize you could have relaxed the whole time. From top to bottom, this is the work of a man who no longer has to impress anyone, and there is a joy in watching him refuse to take the easy, unoriginal path at every turn.
The Ghost Writer is available on home video in a Blu-Ray/DVD flipper disc from Summit Entertainment (U.S.), and single disc Blus from Paradox (Canada) and Optimum Home Entertainment (U.K., where the film is known only as The Ghost). Transfers appear to be identical across the board, and my copy looked incredibly faithful to the theatrical presentation. This is a beautiful film that is rich with color even as everything has an intentionally cold, ethereal look as if shot in a hospital. It makes for near-reference quality material, crisp and sharp for extreme detail but with a nice balance of grain to prevent any waxen smoothing. The audio track is equally impressive in the same unexpected manner as the picture quality. The Ghost Writer spots a nuanced soundtrack, filled with faint background noises that test the subtlety of a surround-sound setup while Alexandre Desplat’s kooky, glockenspiel-heavy score reflects the unorthodox tension of the movie.
NOTE: Be aware, however, that the U.S. release of The Ghost Writer hit theaters with an overdubbed soundtrack to censor swear words to secure a PG-13 rating. Why is beyond me, considering that anyone who would go to a film this subtle has the emotional maturity to handle language, but Summit has inexplicable included this censored track — and only this censored track — in their home video release. I would urge interested Americans to import the Canadian disc, which of course plays without issue on all Region A players.
Sadly, none of the releases of the film appears to carry anything other than a handful of Electronic Press Kit material, all simplistic, pat-on-the-back stuff that barely goes into the film’s complexities other than to briefly touch upon the themes and style. The cast interviews are the worst, luvvie back scratching of the lowest order.
If the extras were more substantive, this would easily qualify as one of the best releases of the year. Picture and audio quality is superb, and the film itself is one of the few great works of an incredibly weak year. I’m still fuming over the censorship though, and the dubbing really is so obvious that I must insist that Americans import a Canadian copy. Polanski himself offered a summary of his career that he did not know what kind of movies he made other than to say that he made films for grown-ups. There is indeed a maturity to this film lacking in genre film today, and to see it made more childish through obvious and clumsy dubbing is outrageous. I know that Roman Polanski is a hot-button issue, and I certainly respect those who refuse to watch his films on principle more than I do those who look for justification for his crimes because they love his work. But I can only offer my sincere enjoyment of the movie and its ideas, and anyone in search of a great throwback to Watergate-era thrillers owes it to themselves to check out this superb piece of art.
- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. He aspires to be a critic, partially out of his love for film but mainly because he’s always dreamed of living a life of extreme poverty.
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