Review: The Ghost Writer

By  · Published on February 26th, 2010

Roman Polanski’s newest film finds the infamous director mining familiar territory. This is a welcome return. Like Scorsese and the gangster film or Fincher tackling mystery/suspense, Polanski is never more comfortably in his element than when he handles paranoid thrillers and political intrigue. With The Ghost Writer, Polanski manifests dense atmosphere, brooding tension, and complex political corruption in a way similar to the best paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (a category which included some of the director’s greatest cinematic achievements), and the adaptation of this format to the 21st century filmic and political landscape proves largely successful, even if it occasionally flirts with being middling and awkward.

The Ghost Writer thankfully wastes no time jumping into its plot in the film’s first few minutes, where an unnamed writer referred to in the end credits simply as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is assigned to ghostwrite the autobiography of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). What seems like a well-paying job that’s demanding only in the short span of time he hast to complete inevitably becomes more complex as The Ghost’s curiosity over the previous ghost writer’s death quickly transforms into an obsession, the film revealing at a deliberate pace the many complexities and justifications behind a corrupt administration.

It is interesting that The Ghost Writer was released (on 4 screens) the same weekend as Shutter Island, because both films represent entertaining, assured, densely well-crafted entries by each of their respective filmmaking legends, yet neither will be canonized amongst these directors’ best work. The Ghost Writer shows that Polanski is still capable, after fifty years of filmmaking, of crafting a thriller that puts the talent behind most of its box office competition to shame, yet at the same time the film is more of an assurance of continually possessed skill rather than a return to greatness or a progressing of his cinematic boundaries.

In one sense, The Ghost Writer is a welcome stylistic flashback to great political thrillers of decades past, upgraded in a way to not feel dated. The transformation of an outspokenly apolitical protagonist too involved to remain so as he goes deeper in uncovering various levels of abuse in executive power is articulated at a methodical pace, focusing on each detail to make the ultimate reveals more believable and thus more affecting. Where an arbitrary action scene would normally take place, Polanski chooses the brooding quietude of a murmured mystery slowly ramping up to a fever pitch of whispers and questions. Polanski shows remarkable control in this regard, employing suspense through slow reveals rather than bursts of forced drama. The director exhibits that he hardly needs a great catalog of toys to create suspense, for something as simple as a parked car can be inundated with meaning and endless questions if handled right.

In its narrative of political corruption, The Ghost Writer confronts reality in a way that many recent politically themed movies shy away from. There are obvious parallels here with Bush and Blair’s collaboration up to the Iraq war, and details of British affiliation with American corruption that hark back to controversies of false intelligence and private interest (there is a thinly-veiled reference to Halliburton). It’s refreshing that a movie about political corruption – even, in this case, one that seems to exist more for entertainment purposes rather than force a revelatory message about a decade that has already been analyzed to no end – possesses the necessary balls to actually reference events in a way that is convincing. Also refreshing is that figures on all sides of the political aisle here (forming a cinematic pinball machine of competing interests that the mostly observant The Ghost is pushed from corner to corner in) are portrayed as backstabbing political opportunists whose priorities hardly extend beyond personal interests and career survival.

While The Ghost Writer is in many ways a specifically 21st century look at British and American politics imbuing an approach within genre popular in decades past, the third act presents several problems that make the film come across dated. The ultimate reveal of the corruptions within the Lang administration (and post-administration) resonate as hardly so corrupt compared to the real-life controversies it alludes to (sometimes reality is far more bizarre and shocking than fiction can hope to be). In a day and age where Dick Cheney can go at talk show and openly reveal, without the slightest fear of encountering criminal charges, that waterboarding and other advanced interrogation techniques were his idea as soldiers who carried out those orders continue to serve time in military prison, it’s hard to believe that the Prime Minister associated with Bush-type politics in this film would fear the knowledge of corruption possessed by his ghost writer. This, and the particular fates that ultimately befall these respective central characters, seems more resonant alongside the layers of secret corruption of 60s and 70s politics rather than the frightening transparency that characterized the corrupt politics of this past decade.

One aspect of Polanski’s work I haven’t noticed before that is utilized in an interesting way here is the use of architecture and production design, particularly that of Lang’s getaway home on the shore of Cape Cod, which is presented here as a grey rain-soaked misery of a place containing impersonal monochromatic walls that trap these characters in like a prison. Performances are solid all around. McGregor has always played a good everyman-type caught at the center of circumstances beyond him, and Brosnan uses the weight of his persona to such an effective degree that his presence resonates even in the many scenes in which he isn’t present (the role is small in its running time, but big in its impact). Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife and Tom Wilkinson as a mysterious former colleague are also up to par, but Kim Cattrall is out of place here as an assistant who apparently only sometimes possesses a British accent.

The greatest joy of The Ghost Writer is to see Polanski in full form, controlling every frame and returning to a genre that he’s so damn good at crafting. Some moments – like the last two minutes, showing brilliant technique in an ending that unfortunately doesn’t contain the impact to warrant or justify the ingenuity of Polanski’s direction – even hint at a director superior to the material he’s co-written.

On the Upside: Polanski making the type of film that made him “Polanski.”

On the Downside: An uneven and out-of-place third act.

On the Side: This review made absolutely no reference to the controversies in Polanski’s personal life, as they have nothing to do with the film itself.