Monday, February 28, 2011

Master Shot: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

While most of the hubbub at last night's Oscars concentrated on such worthy pictures as The King's Speech (which won Best Picture) and The Social Network, one of the best movies from last year actually didn't get a nod of recognition from the Academy. Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, based on Robert Harris's best-selling political thriller, The Ghost (2010), is a shrewd suspense drama which demonstrates that Polanski still has some clever tricks up his sleeve. And he's having a ball unveiling them. The fact that the film barely caught the imagination of the Academy, or the audience (except for a number of critics), just adds to the irony of the story itself.

The plot revolves around a British ghost writer (Ewan McGregor), whose name we never know, who has been given the assignment of completing the memoirs of his country's former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Although his agent tells him it's the opportunity of a lifetime, the previous ghost, a former aide to the PM, recently turned up mysteriously dead on the beach. Hence, the current job opening. Making matters worse, on the day the new ghost arrives, Rycart (Robert Pugh), a former British foreign minister, accuses Lang of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA (which, according to Rycart, leaves the former leader open to charges of war crimes). While Lang seeks refuge to avoid the reach of the International Criminal Court (which turns out to be the U.S.), his ghost writer begins to uncover clues in the memoir left by his predecessor that might possibly implicate Lang.

Harris's novel is clearly inspired by the belief in many quarters (although not in mine) that former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair was a possible war criminal by falsely and deliberately leading his country into the war in Iraq. Whether or not you buy the argument, in the movie, Polanski shifts the focus of the story away from the political fracas and onto the writer. As he did in his adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden (1994), Polanski doesn't settle for simple moral and political condemnations. (Given the events of his personal life, he'd be a fool to try.) The Ghost Writer delves more succinctly (with dabs of sneaky humour) into the perspective of the ghost, a cipher who is attempting to become visible.

Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor

In most political thrillers, the stories are driven by a sole idealist who seeks to uncover a conspiracy of corruption that will redeem his idealism (or perhaps shatter it). But Polanski undercuts that cliché. McGregor's writer is not motivated by any political ideals. He is simply a writer-for-hire who nobody knows exists (perhaps like many nameless film directors who are relegated to be hacks). The scribe tries to uncover this conspiracy merely as a means to make himself matter. But nothing in this entertainingly original thriller goes as planned. Polanski is so relaxed and assured in his direction that he doesn't once turn the story into a typical suspense story. He even plays off the writer's innocuousness by depriving him of any kind of drive. (Polanski also means this literally. McGregor is often lead to clues by the GPS in his car suggesting that the story is always driving him.) When Polanski deals with the circumstances surrounding Adam Lang, too, he doesn't turn the former leader into an obvious weasel who needs to be snared. Pierce Brosnan's colourful performance makes it clear that, whatever one feels about Lang's decisions, he takes full responsibility for having made those choices.

Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson
The Ghost Writer never puts the squeeze on the audience and that could be why it barely made a dent in the Academy's memory. In one particularly subtle and funny scene, McGregor finds that a car may be following him. Conditioned to anticipate a car chase (as are we), he quickly hides on a side street and waits for it. The moments continue to pass quietly as this mysterious vehicle never arrives. Polanski plays shell games with what we have come to expect as well as what we don't see coming. The movie continually works beneath the surface of the plot which is mostly perfunctory.

The actors are having a ripe good time as well. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast as a man whose talents are only for adapting to his circumstances. (He's equally appealing as Jim Carrey's lover in the unfortunately little seen, I Love You, Phillip Morris.) Besides Brosnan's crafty depiction of Lang, Olivia Williams is also quite impressive as his wife Ruth.Williams brings a brittle and bitter fragility to the part that successfully disguises Ruth's cleverness (which ultimately fools the ghost). As Lang's assistant and mistress, Amelia, Kim Cattrall has a piquant eroticism that spices up the dryness in the material. The picture is also peppered with witty cameos by Timothy Hutton, as Lang's American lawyer, Tom Wilkinson, as a suspected CIA agent, and Jim Belushi, as the CEO of the publishing firm doing Lang's memoirs. Eli Wallach also turns up briefly as one of those nosy neighbours characteristic of almost every Polanski thriller from Repulsion (1965) to The Tenant (1976).
The Ghost Writer is the most fun I've had at a Polanski movie since Rosemary's Baby (1968). In his early movies, though, Polanski took a perverse delight in dabbling in darkness which often brought an unnecessary layer of creepiness to the material. As he's gotten older (especially since his darkly erotic 1992 comedy Bitter Moon), Polanski has accepted the macabre as part of life's paradoxes. The darkness now adds texture to his stories rather than being its driving force. You also could say that the ending of The Ghost Writer shares its sense of the absurd with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Like Huston (who played the wealthy villain in Polanski's Chinatown), Roman Polanski is relaxed and assured here in a world view that is shadowed, but no longer squalid. He has finally developed a spry humanism to go with his gargoyle grin.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto in March looking at the Femme Fatale. On Thursday March 3rd, Courrier reads from his book Artificial Paradise at the Spadina Public Library at 7pm.

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