By Michael Andreacchio
Roman Polanski returns to form in this twisted joyride, where life imitates art.
Hollywood is no stranger to sex and scandal. Films rely heavily on them as plot points to help move the story forward and add intrigue. However, when the cameras stop rolling, many powerful A-list actors and studio executives have been tied to a number of sex crimes. Allegations of sexual misconduct have surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and Kevin Spacey this past year alone. What is striking is that all of the allegations are made against men in power.
This is nothing new, unfortunately. Dozens of Hollywood A-listers have been tied to past allegations involving sexual misconduct and rape. The list includes box office superstars such as Dustin Hoffman, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Ben Affleck, and of course Roman Polanski. Many of them have gone unpunished for their crimes, wiggling free from judgment like a slippery politician. This may suggest that power corrupts.
Corruption of men and women in power is a common theme in Polanski’s 2010 political thriller called The Ghost Writer.
That is, The Ghost Writer, not to be confused with Ghost Rider. This is not a movie about an evil skeleton riding around the city with his head on fire. In case there was any confusion. Celebrated filmmaker and auteur Roman Polanski crafts a mature political thriller amidst his own controversy (which we will get to later).
This sleek film is a firm reminder of why Polanski is a master at his craft. It is not exactly paced with breakneck speed or high-octane action sequences like the typical thriller. The pacing is deliberate, not slow or plodding. There is a sense throughout the film that each bit of information that is introduced is somehow relevant and will turn up later. This technique is used to draw an audience in and keep them on the edge of their seats guessing.
Polanski, who is best known for his films Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, deftly returns to his roots of the thriller genre. Much like Hitchcock, he creates a world where everyone is a suspect. In fact, it takes its structure from Hitchcock directly, whose subtle insights into character and situation add to the mystery of the story being told. This film reminded me of moments from Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps. We are reeled in and gripped by an eerie sense that there is something more to each character and each scene. As the film progresses, we discover bits and pieces to a darker subtext just underneath the surface and then were thrown for a curve.
Ewan McGregor plays the Ghost Writer, a man with no name ever given, and, again, this is deliberate. A ghostwriter is a person whose job it is to write material for someone else who is the named author. The writer is the driving force behind the book but in a detached way. In the film, this constitutes an integral deliberate piece in the storytelling process.
Early in the film, the ghost is brought into a meeting with a big publishing company by his slick agent played by Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Punisher). The meeting is with the publisher John Maddox (James Belushi). Belushi is just one in a long line of well-known actors who has a great bit role in this film.
The Ghost is commissioned to write former British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s autobiography. However, he discovers that he is inheriting the job from a previous ghostwriter who was found dead on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. Belushi delivers a great performance in the short amount of time we see him on screen. His dialogue is both meaningful and deliberate. Despite, admittedly, not knowing much about politics, The Ghost claims that he would bring heart to the project which would be the driving force of the book.
The character of the former Prime Minister Adam Lang is deftly portrayed by British actor Pierce Brosnan. For me, this performance is arguably his best work as an actor. Lang is embroiled in controversy and wanted for war crimes, which involved his authorization in obtaining information from terror suspects. He flees to Martha’s Vineyard to escape imprisonment or extradition, where he is instructed by his American Lawyer Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton), to not travel to any countries with extradition policies.
Here we see life imitating art in two ways.
The obvious sentiment is how closely related the character of Adam Lang is to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In fact, that is exactly what co-screenwriter Robert Harris had intended in his book The Ghost, on which the film is based on. The book is a thinly veiled account of Tony Blair and his involvement in the Iraq war, and his close relationship with George W. Bush (who incidentally was also accused of sexual misconduct). The resemblance is so uncanny that some were concerned that there would be libel legal action taken against the film. If it had not been for Harris’ close personal relationship with Blair, there just might have been.
The second account comes directly from Polanski’s personal life, which has been publicly scrutinized. Polanski’s former wife, actress Sharon Tate was brutally murdered during the Manson family killings, while pregnant, subsequently prompting the media to drag it into the spotlight for years after her death.
Polanski himself has been charged and convicted of several sex crimes involving minors in several countries (including the U.S.). In 2010, he was arrested while traveling to Switzerland to receive a lifetime film award at the Zurich Film Festival. He was placed under house arrest during which he finished post-production on The Ghost Writer.
The film acts as a developing satire to what was going on at the time of the film’s release. Contextually, it was very easy for Polanski to hide in the shadows of his French Chalet and live out the remainder of his life in relative peace. Instead, Polanski has chosen to strike back with this well-crafted film, depicting the corruption of power. One might even suggest that this film was aimed at pointing blame back onto the world’s government.
Because Polanski is not allowed on American soil, much of the portrayal of Martha’s Vineyard in Boston was shot on location in Germany and France. Pawel Edelman‘s cinematography emphasizes cool colors and a barren seaside landscape. The rain-soaked shore adds a menacing context. Edelman has worked with Polanski on several films including The Pianist and Carnage.
The Ghost is introduced on arrival at the Lang compound. We get a sense that the former politician feels much like Napoleon Bonaparte after his crushing defeat at Waterloo, who was exiled on the island of St. Helena. Banished for his ideas and actions behind hard stances. Here we see Lang portrayed as a half liar, half principled man with a secret.
The Ghost meets Lang’s wife Ruth, played with icy, cold brilliance by Olivia Williams. He also meets Lang’s aide and mistress played by Kim Cattrall. We get a sense here that there is a power struggle for control between these two women. We follow Polanski’s main theme that power is corruptible. There’s a detachment to each of the characters. The Ghost himself we learn has no family or attachments,
Here we get a first look at the manuscript which the first ghostwriter was writing before his untimely death. The manuscript becomes a character within itself. Some might draw the conclusion that the predecessor’s ghost still lingers in it. It is always placed under lock and key. It is acknowledged throughout the film. It also holds a dark secret which is revealed in the last scene. Again, this is deliberate by Polanski who says in an interview which is part of the DVD extras that he wanted the manuscript to act as a character in itself.
Polanski’s use of dark atmosphere is thick. Characters, settings, and locations all bleed through as cold and distant. We get a sense that each character is guarded, holding their cards close to their chest.
Finding vague clues hidden away by his predecessor, The Ghost Writer is led down a trail of lies and deceit. In his hunt for answers, he encounters an old local (Eli Wallach), and a former colleague of Lang’s (Tom Wilkenson). Both actors deliver brief but stunning performances opposite McGregor. These scenes deepen the suspense as the ghost draws closer to the truth and even closer to the sense of circling wolves hidden in the shadows.
Like any good thriller, tension and paranoia build with each scene. Eventually, Adam Lang is assassinated while the book is being finished. At the book’s release party, the ghost discovers that Lang’s wife, Amelia was a CIA operative working with the American government through a clue hidden and decoded in the manuscript.
Some people questioned whether the big reveal at the end of the film was enough. I believe it follows Polanski’s vision of corruptible power. We see Ruth Lang as a vulnerable character at the beginning of the film. However, it’s revealed in a subtle way at the end just how much power she, in fact, did wield. It is an interesting character study to go back and re-watch the scenes with her in it. There is something more to Olivia William’s performance, something dark and foreboding just underneath her brooding surface.
In the final shot of the film, The Ghost walks out into the bustling city of London where he is run over and killed by a dark sedan. At least we think he was. This happens detached from the frame, so the audience only assumes that this occurs. The long-take shot continues with the pages of the original manuscript billowing out into the cityscape. Alexandre Desplat’s music accompaniment carries the film to its credits.
Multiple Academy-Award-winning composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat’s music seethes amidst the scenes, channeling Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock. Desplat has been well sought after by well-known Hollywood heavyweight filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Gullermo Del Toro. His music has tremendous depth and provides a sinister context.
The consensus is that many people just didn’t get it; they thought it was too slow. Another knock on the film was that the story wasn’t particularly strong. However, the idea of a ghostwriter stumbling upon a dark secret while looking through the life of a politician is intriguing. This could have truly been a typical film. But, in Polanski’s adept hands, and the brilliant choices he makes as a filmmaker, it works.
He subtly uses long takes to lull his audience into a false sense of security. He keeps the audience guessing through the last scene of the movie. Polanski has a way of making an old lady eating ice cream look eerie. He makes the mundane look sinister which can be seen in his other films like Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. He is a master at his craft despite his personal shortcomings. The suspense built through each new bit of information, and the cat and mouse plot structure.
If you haven’t seen this film yet, and you enjoy film, go see it. If you glossed over it, watch it again. There is fantastic narrative, energy, and drive. As a politically charged thriller, this film is in the conversation with Three Days of the Condor, and Munich as one of the best in this particular genre. This film needs to be approached with an open mind and looked at like a fine meal; savor every bite and enjoy!
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