review for The Ghost Writer on AllMovie

The Ghost Writer (2010)
by Bruce Eder review

Roman Polanski's legal troubles, including his arrest in Switzerland for fleeing prosecution in the United States three decades ago, may have been the basis for most of the press coverage that the director has received over the past six months. The release of The Ghost Writer may alter the nature of his public profile more than a bit, regardless of Mr. Polanski's personal travails. The movie is filled with rewarding performances and a low-key, unobtrusive directorial style that allows it to unfold across its 128-minute length at a pace that manages to be unforced yet exciting, with enough continuous tension -- and strategically placed thrills and pieces of a puzzle -- to carry that length without ever losing the viewer. He is aided considerably by a brace of superb performances by all concerned, most notably by Pierce Brosnan (proving that the actor was wasted in the role of James Bond) as the man at the core of the mystery, a former British prime minister who is at the center of accusations of being a war criminal, based on his anti-terrorism policies. Brosnan seems to embody the modern incarnation of the banality of evil, a man of few principles and limited intelligence and imagination, whose simple-mindedness, veiled in a vacuous, pleasant smile, makes him seem like a British take on former president George W. Bush. Brosnan's seeming antagonist across most of the length of this thriller/drama is Ewan McGregor as "The Ghost" (that's the only way anyone ever refers to him in the film), a professional ghost writer engaged to salvage the ten-million-dollar memoir written about former prime minister Adam Lang (Brosnan). It's an assignment that has, as we see in the opening minutes, already resulted in the death of Lang's original collaborator and longtime aide, under the most mysterious circumstances (a drowning, apparently by suicide, on the ferry serving the Massachusetts compound where Lang and his entourage are sequestered, while on an American speaking tour).

McGregor is amazingly good in a role that gives him relatively little to work with -- his is a character that not only has no name, but no past to speak of and no family entanglements, so his experience shouldn't resonate much with the audience. But what should become a cipher that few can penetrate instead becomes a kind of big-screen everyman for audience members to relate to -- up to a point. This is a very cold movie at its center, very distant, despite McGregor's success at fleshing out a character that is hardly more than a skeleton, in terms of what he brings to us. He's just vulnerable enough, and surprised and skeptical enough -- about what he's been asked to do, and the world of politics to which he's been asked to enter -- to give us something to grab on to. Polanski, perhaps working from some of the frustrations inherent (from his point-of-view) in his own circumstances, is able to convey the maddening side of international law, and the machinations of governments dealing with embarrassments in their midst. That element, along with a lot of cynicism about government and the motivations of the people allegedly working for it, is palpable throughout this film.

The Ghost Writer is actually a rich cinematic experience on several levels. There is the topical side, which is deceptive -- most audience members will assume that ex-British prime minister Tony Blair is the basis for Brosnan's character, but the original book by Robert Harris (who collaborated on the screenplay with Polanski) was conceived in the early '90s, long before Blair was PM, at a time when Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean leader, was the most prominent national leader being accused of crimes against humanity. Still, the screenplay and Polanski's realization of it do trade in images that are unavoidable in their parallels to more recent events (even of the last few weeks in Blair's case), which can't hurt the movie's box office. But parallel to this seeming film à clef fiction are the deceptions all around that litter the plot -- Olivia Williams (recalling Claire Bloom in her youthful prime) gives a chilling performance as the wife of the accused, a woman whose attributes most patently do not include loyalty, at least to people. And Kim Cattrall is a major surprise in this picture -- she's one of those actresses who is almost too beautiful for her own good, giving a fine performance here that is almost lost amid the camera's exploration of her physical allure. Polanski's interest in younger members of the fairer sex is well-documented (almost to the point of embarrassment to all concerned), but he (and cinematographer Pawel Edelman) seem quite capable, based on the evidence here, of savoring (in visual terms) the allure of the mature actress, as well. (There's also what amounts to a cameo by Eli Wallach that is well worth the attention it is given in the script, and the place it occupies in the action.) Alexandre Desplat's music is also a striking virtue, minimalist yet attractive, without being distracting, and filled with vivid timbres that only add to the levels of suspense and the engrossing nature of the picture.

If there is a flaw in The Ghost Writer, it is in "The Ghost." McGregor is fine in the role, but in the end, he isn't a real character, because there isn't anything there that one can fully embrace, in the manner of, say, Robert Redford's hero in Three Days of the Condor or Warren Beatty in The Parallax View. We follow McGregor, accept what he is doing, and never lose focus on the movie, but in the end, there's no "there" there, and the last section, in which the mystery is unraveled, is the only part of the movie that not only seems rushed, but cold and relatively ineffective. It makes for a slight letdown in the wake of everything else we've seen.

What there is, instead, is a finely made and beautiful looking film that is a conjuring trick on a lot of levels -- Polanski obviously never got near the United States in making this movie, but one forgets it almost instantly from the first frame. And the widescreen film, with a very lively soundtrack, will have to be seen in theaters to be properly appreciated -- this might not be the Massachusetts coast, but the outdoor sequences, of which there are many, just will not translate well onto a screen of less than 60 or 70 inches, if that. It's a great movie to see, and an easy one to enjoy, and will also recall thrillers of a now-distant era of the 1970s and early '80s, when Watergate, among other matters, threw a dark cloud over the espionage and mystery genres. Indeed, in terms of mysteries and thrillers, parallels with Polanski's earlier work cannot be avoided -- one almost wishes that someone would say to McGregor's "Ghost," at some point, the operant line from Chinatown: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."