Memoir is hell
The Ghost Writer, political thriller, rated PG-13, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles
In the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s good but not great thriller The Ghost Writer, a driverless car is towed off a ferry during a chilly, rain-swept night. The driver shows up in the next shot, his body washed up on the shore of a cold, deserted beach. The man — who either jumped, slipped, or was pushed from the ferry — was hired as a ghostwriter to shape the biography of a former British prime minister who is coming under political fire for his role in kidnapping suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA to face torture. Apparently, the ghostwriting gig was pretty stressful. “It was the book that killed him,” one of his publishing peers cheerfully notes.
Ah, but the dead man’s replacement will let no such mishap befall him. He’s a nameless British chap with a wry sense of humor and the ability to put heart into the text of the most banal autobiographies. And for $250,000, he’ll gladly hole up in an isolated fortresslike structure on an island off the coast of Massachusetts to work with his subject. The plan is to get the book done in a month, and this boy is the perfect choice for the
job: he can work quickly, he has no family ties, and he isn’t superstitious about creepy old seaside inns or the mournful cry of a foghorn alerting passing ships to danger.
There’s danger aplenty in The Ghost Writer, as the title character (called “the ghost” and played by Ewan McGregor) quickly realizes — he has stumbled onto an international conspiracy to control the world. That’s not actually true; the stakes turn out to be not quite so high.
But for two-thirds of its running time, The Ghost Writer reinforces the fact that Polanski knows how to make psychological suspense movies better than just about anyone else out there. This is the man who brought us the gripping Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965),
Cul-de-Sac (1966), and Chinatown (1974). He won an Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist.
Ghost Writer is a claustrophobic work, and it doesn’t give our hero much room to grow, explore, or escape. The ghostwriter’s employer, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), is trapped in a foreign land as he tries to escape the international court’s attempts to try him for war crimes. Tossed into the cramped, dreary settings are Lang’s spiteful wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and his secretary/mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall of
Sex and the City).
There’s no point in revealing the secrets that the ghostwriter uncovers — mostly by accident or coincidence, which mars the screenplay’s overall impact — but let it suffice to say that he’s soon eluding shadowy pursuers and dealing with scowling bodyguards who claim to be protecting him even as they lock the doors of his small hotel room. The women in the story are duplicitous, too — it’s as if the protagonist has written himself into an Eric Ambler novel.
In fact, the story line and characters sprang out of a Robert Harris book. Harris, a former British journalist who covered Tony Blair’s campaign in England and got a bit close to his subject before turning on him, wrote The Ghost, the novel on which this screenplay (co-written by Harris and Polanski) is based. Lang is a thinly veiled version of Blair, although as played by Brosnan here, he may remind you just as much of Ronald Reagan.
As a political thriller, the movie is a little “all wet” — no surprise, given how often it rains in the picture. But it includes a lot of delicious moments in which the hero decides to do something stupid, and you want to scream out, “Don’t do that!” — knowing full well that if he didn’t do it, there wouldn’t be much suspense. The acting is first-rate all around, though not on a level that will summon up Academy Award nominations. Think of the smooth underplaying of Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, and you’ll get the picture. Alexandre Desplat’s score pays obvious — and nail-bitingly successful — homage to Bernard Herrmann’s compositions for that 1959 Hitchcock thriller. There’s a scene late in the picture involving the passing of an envelope from hand to hand, and Desplat’s score makes all the difference when it comes to taking your breath away. Hervé de Luze’s editing is a big plus, too — neither he nor Polanski were in a hurry to cut scenes short, letting the actors carry out lengthy bits of business to build the tension.
The picture sports a delightfully dark sense of humor, much like Polanski’s 1967 horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers. After an elderly man played with spunk by Eli Wallach launches into a lengthy
Scooby Doo-style explanation of the strange lights visible on the beach and the fact that the first ghostwriter’s body couldn’t possibly have washed up on this section of shore due to some nautical anomaly, he lets our hero know that there’s an eyewitness who can clear it all up. “But she won’t talk to you,” the elder says with a sense of finality. “Why not?” the ghost asks. “She’s in a coma.” In the final reels, The Ghost Writer comes close to slipping into a coma. But until then, it will make you glad to go to the theater to take in an old-fashioned mystery — particularly on a rainy night. ◀
The secret love child of Tony Blair and Ronald Reagan: Pierce Brosnan