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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.