Mar 1, 2010

Movie Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

Despite a few missteps, Pierce Brosnan maintains his mostly winning streak of eclectic, intriguing post-Bond projects with Roman Polanski’s spy thriller The Ghost Writer. (I think it’s fair to say that he’s second only to Connery in terms of maintaining a thriving career after 007.) As for Polanski, while I certainly can’t advocate his life choices, there's no denying that he’s a great filmmaker, either. He’s one of the very best, in fact, and one of the few of his generation who continues to make compelling, first-rate cinema. In terms of Polanski’s greater oeuvre, The Ghost Writer doesn’t rank at the very top, but it’s certainly one of the good ones–and it’s also certainly one of the better thrillers you’re likely to see in theaters this year.

Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghost writer (or simply “ghost” as he’s usually referred to in the vernacular of his industry; indeed, the original title of this film was simply–and perhaps more appropriately–The Ghost) hired to rewrite the memoirs of an enigmatic, Tony Blair-like former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan). The deadline is tight already and quickly tightened even more when Lang comes under fire–and under investigation by the International Criminal Court–for alleged complicity in extreme rendition of British subjects (terror suspects) to CIA torture prisons. McGregor is whisked off to a desolate, windswept and storm-prone Martha’s Vineyard (whatever European coastline filled in as the location did an admirable job of it) to complete the manuscript at the vacation home where Lang, his wife, a skeleton staff and an omnipresent security detail are staying. He is not permitted to take the manuscript out of the house, and Lang seems a little too caught up in his very public troubles to spend much time being interviewed by his ghost.

The Ghost’s first reaction on reading the existing version of the memoirs is to fall asleep; they’re that bad. Then he comes across some intriguing clues left by the previous ghost writer on the project, Mike McAra, whose body washed ashore the week before under very mysterious circumstances. Soon McGregor is becoming a much more literal ghost–the ghost of McAra–as he follows up on his leads (guided by McAra's voice from the grave in an ingenious device) and starts to draw some disturbing conclusions about Lang and his connection to the CIA and its torture flights. But are they the right conclusions? Nothing is as it seems and no one is quite as they seem at the dreary, isolated beach house. The women in Lang’s life–his wife and longtime advisor, Ruth (an excellent Olivia Williams) and his closest aide and apparent mistress, Amelia (Kim Cattrall)–each clearly have their own agendas... but what are those agendas? And how do they affect The Ghost? For that matter, who are the sinister men following him?

Polanski ratchets up the suspense at such a masterfully deliberate pace that while you’re always aware that something is wrong, you’re still in shock when the true jolts start to come. The word “Hitchcockian” is thrown around far too much these days, and applied to any old generic thriller. This is one case in which the term is truly applicable. Polanski is clearly emulating the master, from his lengthy, nail-biting suspense setpieces (leave it to a septuagenarian to find the best ever filmic use of a piece of modern technology like a GPS system) to the intensely Bernard Herrmanesque score by Alexandre Desplat. The results are hugely entertaining.

McGregor’s characteristically solid performance makes a surprisingly compelling lead character out of someone the script provides with virtually no background–not even a name. Yet we still care about him, thanks to McGregor and to the specific ways that Polanski manages to put him in danger. His function is basically a husk to be possessed by the ghost of the former ghost writer (all metaphorically speaking, of course; this is not a horror movie), and yet he’s a husk we can root for. Olivia Williams relishes what’s probably the most fleshed out role in the film and leaves us constantly guessing whether she’s Lady Macbeth or Desdamona. And Brosnan provides another reliably excellent turn in a relatively small but undeniably crucial role. All of the action centers around his character, and his presence is always felt, even during his lengthy absences from the screen. Lang is by necessity an enigma; the audience, like The Ghost, is constantly guessing as to the true motivations that drive this man. Yet Brosnan imbues this enigma with all-too-human emotions and flaws. It’s easy to see both the politician and the man at the same time in his performance, which is quite a feat considering how diametrically opposed those two things can be!

Early on, The Ghost latches onto Lang’s time spent as an actor at Cambridge prior to pursuing a political career. He sees that as a possible angle for the memoir, but Lang won’t allow it. His enemies used to pull that out, he says, whenever they wanted to undercut his impassioned speeches. He’s just an actor, they’d say. The notion, however, of an actor as politician (presumably owing a bit more to Ronald Reagan than Tony Blair) takes on certain extra-textual significance in Brosnan’s hands. Brosnan himself rose to fame on American television as Remington Steele, an actor (essentially, though maybe “con man” or “fraud” would be better words) using his considerable charm to pose as a suave private detective while the true brains of the operation (in that case, Laura Holt–played by Stephanie Zimbalist) went unheralded. Isn’t Remington Steele, perhaps, the ultimate politician? Adam Lang is, and he's a clear screen descendent.

To discuss the movie itself in too much more detail would risk giving away the many, many plot twists (which come fast and furious until the perhaps too-abrupt ending), but suffice it to say that it's likely to entertain spy fans and Pierce Brosnan fans alike.  The material may sound heavy, but politics are purely the film's milieu, not its message.  Polanski is in Ninth Gateterritory here (albeit a completely different genre), not Pianistcountry.  (Both movies that I love, for the record.)  He's having fun–and so will the audience.

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