The Ghost Writer is a low key thriller of the type one wouldn’t expect to be made by a director as distinguished as Roman Polanski, and the film’s release has been similarly low key. Perhaps this is only being seen in a few theaters because this is a film targeted at adults, an audience that has become increasingly hard to market to, perhaps it’s because the film has been pretty hard to cut a trailer to without giving away a number of key plot points, or perhaps it’s because of the negative publicity its director has been getting because of his legal battles. I hesitated to even bring that last point up, firstly because the film’s advertising hasn’t really been hiding the fact that the Chinatown auteur is behind the film and secondly because I think Polanski’s work deserves to be appreciated outside of the shadow of his personal shortcomings. On the other hand, one of the most interesting things about this newest film is how aspects of the story mirror that turbulent personal story.
The film is about an author played by Ewan McGregor who’s so anonymous that his name is never revealed over the course of the movie. The character is smart but seems to have minimal ambition and no political beliefs. This anonymity makes the character the perfect ghost writer and within his field he hits the jackpot when he’s asked to help write the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see that Lang was loosely based on Tony Blair, he was a popular leader, but one who seemed to be married to the United States in relation to foreign policy during the war on terror and he’d come under especially tough scrutiny for handing over four alleged terrorists to be tortured for information. Since the movie seems to take place in a world where such behavior is actually punished, he may be tried by the Haig for his actions. In order to escape the protests (and possible extradition), he’s escaped to a house in Martha’s Vineyard. The ghost writer says that he isn’t an investigative reporter and that he only wants to tell Lang’s story as Lang wants to tell it, but as he digs deeper he finds that there’s a secret out there which could shine a light on this world leader’s motives.
The central theme of Polanski’s work is undeniably paranoia, justifiable paranoia. Perhaps the film of his with the most emblematic and accessible expression of this theme is Rosemary’s Baby, a film in which a woman thinks her neighbors are conspiring to do her harm… and it turns out they were. This paranoid sensibility is perfect for the political thriller genre, a genre that’s almost defined by paranoia of this kind. That said, the Polanski film that this most reminds me of is not a political thriller but rather a supernatural thriller: The Ninth Gate. That late nineties Johnny Depp vehicle is not particularly well remembered but, it was a pretty good but it was a pretty good bit of genre filmmaking and Polanski’s sensibilities made it a lot more interesting than it otherwise would have been. That was another film about an unassuming man who stumbled onto a deep secret and kept hunting it down while besieged by people more knowledgeable about it than he does, and both of the films end on almost identical notes.
Oh, and this theme of paranoia was established long before Polanski became an international fugitive, which is something that isn’t known for quashing paranoia. His personal woes (which I won’t bother to recount here, Google it if you don’t know) seem to really parallel the life of the Prime Minister character. This is a character that’s been forced to stay in the United States or face charges; it’s an almost perfect parallel to Polanski’s situation in which leaving France would lead to extradition. Polanski’s extradition, also meant that the film couldn’t be filmed in the story’s Massachusetts location, and yet the film also has a really good sense of location. Even though the movie was filmed in Germany, they did a pretty good job of making it look like America, which is important because this foggy New England atmosphere adds a lot to the movie.
The acting from McGregor was solid, but like his character, not particularly noteworthy. I also liked Olivia Williams in the role of the Prime Minister’s wife, but it’s Pierce Brosnan’s work that I found particularly memorable. I wouldn’t say that Brosnan’s actual acting was anything to really write home about, but I think his choice to play this role was a particularly nice piece of casting. Brosnan looks like he could be a election phenomenon and he brings a certain unapologetic cockiness that seems to characterize post-Gitmo politics.
It’s interesting that this film has come out only a few weeks after the release of Shutter Island, another film that explores paranoia in a New England setting. That Scorsese film is certainly more ambitious, but in its own low key way The Ghost Writer explores the theme just as effectively. That said, the Robert Harris novel upon which this is based does not strike me as a work of genius, it strikes me as a pretty typical beach read. This is a case of a director elevating material, not a case of a director rising to the occasion. This is certainly not Polanski’s best work, but it is a good work, one worth seeing.
***1/2 out of Four