The Ghost Writer (2010); Dir. Roman Polanski

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From the opening shot of The Ghost Writer, directed by 76 year old Roman Polanski, of an enormous ferry pulling into a pier at night, you know you are in the hands of a master. The score, by the awesome Alexandre Desplat, is tense and orchestral, an old-school score, making it apparent, from the get-go, that things are not as they seem. Slowly, the ferry pulls toward the screen, backing up to the dock, and it threatens to overwhelm the entire frame. It is not clear why it is such a frightening image, not yet, but that’s Polanski. Nobody knows how to create mood and tone like he does.

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One of my favorite Polanski stories is of an early screening of Rosemary’s Baby, a film full of deeply destabilizing camera angles. You want to pull your hair out and just be allowed to look at something headon, thankyouverymuch. There’s a scene where Rosemary is on the phone, sitting on the edge of the bed, and Polanski has placed his camera outside the room and around the corner a bit, so that you cannot see Rosemary. The phone call may be a benign one, but the camera angle tells a different story. And at the early screening, the entire audience leaned over to the side, as one, to try to see what was around the corner.

This is somewhat of a lost art today in cinema, especially in thrillers which seem to rely more on quick cuts and “gotcha” surprise moments, which may be satisfying in the short-term, but seem way too easy in the long-term. The good thrillers are successful because of the mood created, and it may be the quietest moments that are the most terrifying. I am thinking of Leopoldine Konstantine’s slow descent down the stairs in Notorious, as she comes to meet Ingrid Bergman for the first time. She is seen in long-shot, through the doorway to the parlor, at the top of the stairs. She looks incredibly forbidding, but it is hard to pinpoint why, since we can’t see her face yet. She descends, never taking her eyes off Bergman, and approaches – all in one shot, so she walks right into the closeup. Her eyes are enough to make you run fleeing into the night. That’s tension.

There are a lot of Hitchcock references in The Ghost Writer, particularly one scene where a note with an explosive message on it is passed, hand by hand, through a crowd, the camera following the note’s progression. It reminded me of the notorious key, in Notorious, and keeping track of the key, in her hand, Grant’s hand, on the keychain, becomes one of the games of the film, including the famous tracking shot from high up on the balcony down to the middle of the party to a closeup of Ingrid Bergman’s hand holding the key.

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The Ghost Writer tells the story of a writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who is a bit unmoored in his life (no family, no dependents), and gets the job of being a ghost writer to Adam Lang, the former English Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan). McGregor’s character name is listed as “Ghost”. His predecessor was found drowned on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, where Adam Lang has a forbidding private home, and there appears to be something sketchy about the death. But apparently he was drunk, that’s the story, anyway, so McGregor is called in as a replacement.

From the get-go, there is something strange about the assignment. McGregor is given a manuscript to read, another manuscript, by Adam Lang’s lawyer (played by Timothy Hutton), and on his way home, he is mugged, and the manuscript stolen, by two ninja-types on a motorcycle. Did they think it was the Lang manuscript? The one already written by the former ghost writer? The Ghost is freaked out, but the money he will be paid for this assignment ($250,000) is more money than he has ever seen in his life. He gets on a plane for Martha’s Vineyard.

Lang lives in a fortress on the beach, a squat stone house that calls to mind a bunker, with the waves rolling in only feet away. The landscape is chilling and evocative (made me think of my time on Block Island and how bleak it can get on islands in the winter), and Polanski fills the wide screen with cold grey waves and lowering leaden sky. It’s incredibly ominous. The Ghost is ushered through multiple security checks, and every face glimpsed by the slowly moving camera appears to have a secret.

The former ghost writer had written an entire manuscript, and it will be the new ghost’s job to whip it into shape. The manuscript is kept under lock and key, and must never be shown to anyone. The Ghost has to sign a confidentiality agreement, and is not allowed to take the manuscript back to the small inn, where he will be staying for the duration of the assignment.

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At the house of Adam Lang, the Ghost is introduced to a multitude of new characters: Kim Cattrall plays Amelia Bly, Adam Lang’s administrator (and mistress). She is the one who shows the Ghost the ropes. Cattrall is quite eerie here, so different from Samantha in Sex and the City, and it’s nice to hear her speak in what is her natural accent. She moves with poise and control, no extraneous movements, and always has a bright yet cold smile on her face. Olivia Williams is marvelous as Adam Lang’s wife, a woman with secrets and complexity (as everyone has here), who suggests worlds of bitterness – which seem to be one thing (the normal long-suffering wife of a workaholic famous man) and then, by the end, is revealed to be something totally different. There’s a terrific cameo by Eli Wallach, who plays an old man who lives down the road, and appears to have some new information about the drowned former ghost writer. And then there is Adam Lang himself, played with gusto by Pierce Brosnan. Based on Tony Blair, obviously, Lang had a reputation for being a party animal at Cambridge, and that quickly becomes clear to the Ghost that this is not to be talked about, or dwelled upon in the manuscript. Again, things are not what they seem. Is it that Lang doesn’t want to be portrayed as a lightweight, or is there something really to hide back there in those Cambridge years?

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The Ghost has no idea what he is getting into, but he gamely begins his assignment, reading through the manuscript, and conducting interviews with Lang. The room where he writes is a masterpiece of production design and imagination: a cold stone-walled study, with black leather chairs and couches, with one wall floor to ceiling glass, looking out on the whipping sand-dunes and big dark rollers coming in. McGregor sits at the desk, flipping through the pages, and the setting is so tightly coiled, so controlled, yet just outside is Mother Nature in all her wintry chaos.

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There are political themes in The Ghost Writer, with some obvious parallels to current-day events (a defense company called “Hatherton” becomes crucial), but the film avoids being too on the nose. There’s wit to the references, and pessimism (it’s a deeply cynical film), but the main thrust of it is not Lang’s shady political past but the ghost writer’s stumble down a blind alleyway, looking for the truth. McGregor is our eyes. We are as disoreinted as he is. Lang, within a day of The Ghost’s tenure, is indicted for war crimes by The Hague. All hell breaks loose. Protesters pile up outside the gates at Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard Home, the phones ring off the hook, and the Ghost, a non-political person, finds himself entangled in the situation, writing statements for Lang, which are then read on CNN, and he has mixed feelings about it. “You’re now an accomplice,” smiles Amelia Bly.

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The Ghost isn’t a particularly dare-devil personality, and isn’t all that interested in politics – he doesn’t care about the crusade, or the “talking points”, but as he spends more time in the eerie house on the shore (even the maid seems ominous), he begins to ask questions, finding locked doors everywhere he goes (metaphorically and literally – another nod to Notorious, with that damn keychain). He discovers a folder left behind by the former ghost writer, with notes, and photographs with underlined names on the back – and McGregor wonders about it. It all has to do with Cambridge, with Lang’s time there as an undergraduate. What is forbidden about this subject?

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I suppose you could see all kinds of allegories in The Ghost Writer: a commentary on our times, and the war on terror, and the allegiance between Britain and the United States. Sure, that’s there. There is also a sense of Polanski himself, both in the hunted and persecuted Adam Lang, as well as the “ghost writer”, a man who has been unmoored, in a way, from normal life, has become a ghost. Hidden behind the scenes, still operating, but living in a deeply threatening universe that is hellbent on grinding him to a pulp. For me, the strength of The Ghost Writer does not come from these allegorical connections, although it adds to the ominous through-the-looking-glass feeling. The Ghost Writer is a fantastic thriller, period, with or without the true-to-life backstories, and Polanski, like no other, creates a mood and a world where above all, you just want to escape. The audience wants to escape the tension, and so does the ghost. But there always comes a point of no return. Even if you wanted to escape, you could not.

A better-looking film you won’t see this year (although Shutter Island comes close), with a score that gets inside your head, inside your nervous system, The Ghost Writer is a must-see.

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19 Responses to The Ghost Writer (2010); Dir. Roman Polanski

  1. george says:

    Sheila,

    Read several reviews of the movie. Not helpful. Between the grudge against Polanski (I get it and I can hold such a grudge myself – but what about the movie?) and the political railing (I get it – but what about the movie?) there was little to nothing about the movie.

    Thanks for reviewing the movie.

  2. red says:

    That kind of reviewing drives me insane. Roman Polanski is a great filmmaker. Period. I wouldn’t call this his best – but I would certainly call it close. It’s also just FUN – fun to see a really well-made thriller. I miss them, you know? You watch something like The Ghost Writer and you remember how it REALLY should be done.

    Highly recommended!!

  3. red says:

    Oh – and obviously I have opinions about Polanski as a man, but they are ultimately irrelevant to his art. Or – not irrelevant – they color it – but that’s true of any great artist. To focus only on that and ignore the movie is a huge disservice.

    It’s like people who say, “I hate Sean Penn’s acting” when what they really mean is they hate his politics.

    Or “I love John Wayne movies” but what they really mean is they love John Wayne’s politics.

    I’m really bored by that attitude – created my whole comment policy around it, since so many people couldn’t talk about ART without all that bullshit …

    Anyway: See The Ghost Writer – I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m trying to think if there is a flaw. Not really. It has in it the sort of breathless attitude of conspiracy theorists – which, in general, I think is sort of ludicrous – but it’s fine in the context of a thriller – so many thrillers have to do with vast conspiracies of some sort – and so here it works. The parallels to today’s politics seem more witty than EARNEST – Roman Polanski couldn’t be earnest if he tried, thank God. His pessimism saves him repeatedly.

    Also, it just LOOKS so awesome – every shot a work of art.

  4. red says:

    Oh, and one flaw I can think of: Tom Wilkinson is obviously a wonderful actor. However, I never really buy him when he plays an American – he just seems so British to me. In The Ghost Writer, he plays an American professor. He’s quite effective, yadda yadda, he’s a good actor. But in this particular film, so full of British actors – and it really is a British story (about their Prime Minister, their political process, etc.) – I really think that Wilkinson should have been played by an American actor. There are only a handful of actual American characters in the film – and Wilkinson is the most important. So I don’t think Wilkinson was the best one for the role – Not for any provincial reason (ie: “Only Americans should play Americans!”) – but because plot-wise he is one of the keys to this allegiance between the UK and the US – and with a cast full of British people, it might have driven the point home better if the actor was American. I found my own personal knowledge that this was a British man pretending to be American distracting to the story.

    That was the only thing that pulled me OUT of the movie.

  5. Jake Cole says:

    Sheila,

    Great review. I completely agree, and I’ve been thinking about the film since I saw it last Tuesday (I always give movies a day before I write fully, but it weighed on me so heavily I didn’t finish my own review until Friday).

    I’m thrilled you caught the Notorious homage in the note passing, and it also reminded me of the Sideshow Bob and the rake gag from The Simpsons, only it went from serious to absurd back to dramatic again.

    Red:

    I can understand the objection to Wilkinson’s casting, but I thought he was superb and I wonder if his casting works on another level. All the other actors do, what with Pierce Brosnan, the old Bond, advocating the torture methods we saw used on Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale. McGregor’s character, apart from ghostwriting Lang’s book, writes a statement meant to defend a minister who supports America’s interests, among them the, you guessed it, Star Wars defense program. Williams, of course, is entirely in her element as the intelligent ice queen who only becomes more beautiful (and perversely vulnerable) the madder she gets. I can’t think of a solid meta-commentary made by having Wilkinson, but I’m not yet ready to call Polanski on such an error considering how perfectly thought on nearly everything in and about this film is.

  6. j;l says:

    Reminded me of Block Island too.

  7. Nina says:

    So many people missed the point of the film, which is the total availability in the media of all the information about the former PM’s collusion & all the deceptions involved — so that the Ghost is actually discovering nothing at all, except that the man he assumes must be a collaborator concealing all these things is in fact is pure surface & superficiality, who actually has nothing beneath the platitudes he utters, while the true agent-in-place is his spouse. It’s a typical Polanski turn — just as “Rosemary’s Baby” is about mother-love, or “The Ninth Gate” is really about a fiery (literally) single-minded passion for books (neither is really about the overt satanism), “The Ghost Writer” reveals that politicians are the empty narcissists they seem to be, directed towards power by those who stay out of the picture but whose agendas are utterly obvious & unmistakeable . . .

  8. alli says:

    I never realized that grim and serious could be so beautiful. Probably the best movie I’ve watched in 5 years. Definitely going to have to find more of Polanski’s work, I’ve never seen anything of his before. All of the “new” or overwhelming popular ways movies seem to be shot are distracting or annoying. I was never really conscious of the camera here. Highly recommended… in fact, I don’t want to wait to watch it again.

  9. sheila says:

    You’ve never seen any Roman Polanski? You’re in for a treat unlike any other. He’s a master, a true artist. He directed Chinatown, an American classic. But there’s also Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Knife in the Water, The Pianist (the big recent Oscar-winner with Adrian Brody), Tess, Bitter Moon, Frantic.

    And I loved The Ghost Writer, too. Such mood.

  10. alli says:

    No, I haven’t. I’m completely fascinated by the *idea* of films… but never actually watch them. Part of it, I think, is that I’m not a particularly visual person. I’d rather see something in my head than with my eyes. Which is weird. But most of it is just that I’m stuck in a rural town and I don’t drive (thats part of the visual thing, I’m legally blind) . So I just don’t have the access to new things. I can find most things on the internet, but that still costs money I don’t usually have.

    But, I will get around to seeing some of them eventually. Especially the classic type movies. Knowing that something matters isn’t the same as seeing WHY it does.

  11. sheila says:

    alli – I love your last comment – it is so so true, isn’t it? Whether it be books, or a place, or a movie.

  12. barry young says:

    thoughtful, well written critique, analysis, review.

    one minor note: it was ruth gordon’s character talking on phone in rosemary’s baby to which an entire audience leaned.

    leaning towards you…

    b.y.

  13. sheila says:

    Barry – oooh, thank you for that. Must brush up on my Rosemary’s Baby! :)

  14. Max says:

    Tess was great with Natasha Kinski, Chinatown with Faye Dunaway, but Ghost Writer lacks intensity because Polanski chose washed up, thrice divorced, serial SEX BOOK AUTHOR and ‘Slut in the City’ actress Kim Catrell (‘shared’ friend of Bernard Henri Levy). Polanski used prostitutes earlier in his career and should return to the practice so we don’t have to be subjected to TV sitcom acting when we pay to see a movie on the big screen or even when we rent DVD.
    P this slow moving story unfold into a boring and ultimately unsatisfying ending if you feel compelled, but realize these comments praising this mediocre movie are mostly if not all either PAID PROMOTERS or those involved in the movie. I see this as a psimilar situation to ‘ Blair Witch’ in which bloggers were paid to promote the movie because it was so bad.
    I wish it was a good movie but it wasn’t!
    -max

  15. sheila says:

    Max – No, I am not a paid promoter. I write about what I like and what I don’t like. If you disagree, that’s fine – this is art, it’s subjective. Please try to formulate your opinions without assuming the “other side” is operating with nefarious motives. This site isn’t about that.

  16. sheila says:

    And what does the fact that Kim Cattrall wrote a book about sex have to do with anything?

  17. andre says:

    Sheila, thanks very much for this review. I am in South Africa and not sure whether this movie has actually shown here yet, although sure I can get it on dvd somewhere. I read the Robert Harris book a few years ago, and following your review I’d really love to see this. Am not a ‘film buff’ or all that knowledgeable about Polanski’s work, but do love both Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as classics. Just one point: I don’t know whether any of your readers are that familiar with Harris’s books, but he’s really a GREAT thriller writer. I think more directors can take hsi work and make them into great, classic (story- and character-driven) thrillers.
    Thanks again for the review, cheers

  18. sheila says:

    Andre – hey, thanks for the great comment – I have not read any of Harris and am always looking for good book recs. I will be sure to check it out – thanks so much! Once you see it, feel free to stop by my place again and let me know what you think – I’d love to hear the response of someone who read the book. Sometimes adaptation from book to film can be disappointing for those who love the book – although the opposite is sometimes true. Would love to hear your take on it!

  19. emergencyswitchoff says:

    What kind of camera or cameras were used?

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