Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Roman Polanski, 2010
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton

For those of you who don't already know this, I'm cuckoo for Roman Polanski. He's one of the greatest living directors and is responsible for some of my favorite films:
Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers, etc. Sure, he's had a few questionable efforts, but nothing I would outright call a bad film. When I saw the trailer for The Ghost Writer, I had mixed, but optimistic feelings. I went into the theater feeling nervous, but it's a wonderful film. It's a near perfect thriller and you should get your ass to the theater before it closes and you have to wait for the DVD release.

The Ghost Writer is an adaptation of Robert Harris's novel The Ghost and he co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. A writer (McGregor), whose character is not actually given a name, is hired to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a transparent stand-in for Tony Blair). The original writer, Lang's assistant, has recently washed up on the beach with a stomach full of alcohol. Accident? Suicide? Murder? No one seems to be sure. The writer is flown to a small, New England island where Lang's high security home and compound is located. In addition to a large number of guards and a handful of assistants, Lang lives there with his wife, Ruth (Williams), and his personal assistant/mistress, Amelia (Cattrall). The writer is given limited access to the manuscript and an increasingly ridiculous deadline to finish the book.

Coinciding with his arrival, Lang has been accused by a former colleague of crimes against humanity, of purposefully delivering potential terrorism suspects to the CIA for torture and interrogation. The resident writer is swept up in all of this with increasing urgency, as he attempts to interview Lang, finish the manuscript, and deal with the growing realization that everything is not as it seems. He stumbles across a number of clues that Lang has a shady relationship with the CIA, something of critical importance in the face of so many serious, legal accusations. Against his better judgment, the writer follows the breadcrumb trail of clues, which leads him somewhere neither he nor Lang expect.

The Ghost Writer is part thriller, part murder mystery, and definitely borrows from noir. The writer is, unusually, a character without real motivation or, it would seem, emotions. He's an Everyman slapped down in the middle of an extremely tense political and personal situation that he has absolutely nothing to do with and no relationship to. The previous writer haunts him in a physical sense. In a predictable though very uncomfortable sequence, he is forced to move into his predecessor's room and make due with a closet full of the dead man's clothing. Emotions in the film are cold, tense, and unpredictable. There is a definite sense that everyone is hiding something, even our writer. Sexuality is a powerful force in the film, though not at all as you would expect. It quietly seeps through the film, expressing itself through power relationships, rather than emotional bonds. The only real sex scene in the film is probably one of the least erotic things I've ever seen in my entire life and for that alone is quite masterful. It's amazing how uncomfortable a scene can be with almost no real physical interaction, nudity, or sex.

The acting is solid. Apparently Ewan McGregor replaced Nicholas Cage a few months before shooting began, which gives me a deep and abiding sensation of relief. He's a little understated, but perfect for the part. Pierce Brosnan, who I usually want to punch in the face, is actually very good. His best role is clearly in Mrs. Doubtfire when he gets hit in the back of the head with some fruit, but he definitely gets points for his portrayal of Adam Lang.

The real star of the film, however, is the set. It is absolutely incredible. Most of the film either takes place during a storm or in Lang's disturbing, postmodern house. The bizarre paintings and sculptures give the set a real level of menace and sexuality, particularly considering that they are coupled with extensive security equipment. There are also a lot of enormous windows, which gives the set a further level of surreality. Characters inside appear to be outside, usually in the middle of a threatening storm or on the desolate, gray beach.

I really can't say enough good things about The Ghost Writer. The score is perfectly Hitchcockian. The pacing is pretty brilliant, though a tad slow in the middle section, though you'll forget about that as soon as Polanski amps the plot right up to eleven. The shots and film itself are surprising: there are a lot of close ups which, due to the film quality, almost appear to be in 3-D, giving the characters a looming, claustrophobic feel. Though this is technically a political thriller, Polankski brings it to the level of the personal. There is the constant threat of terrorism and media that gives the film a distinctly paranoid edge and a subtle, biographical note, even though the story is not Polanski's own.

The film has received positive critical reception and it won the Berlin Film Festival's award for Best Director, which is also where the film debuted in early February. Amazingly, it was completed while Polanski was under house arrest. There are also a number of stand in locations, due to the director's limited ability to travel. Polanski has clearly become the heir to Hitchcock. His technically impressive film work and menacing writing ensure his status as a master of suspense. Here's the DVD. Buy it now!!!

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