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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Polanski’s ‘Ghost’ a haunting thriller

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

In recent months, much more attention has been placed on director Roman Polanski’s legal troubles, stemming from his rape conviction of a minor in 1977, than on his work as a filmmaker. With the release of “The Ghost Writer”—the film Polanski was working on at the time of his arrest—the director presents another great movie that, while not reaching the heights of his previous accomplishments like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” nevertheless packs quite a cinematic punch.

Following the death of a ghost writer assigned to write the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), another ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is given the task of completing the highly-anticipated book in time for its looming deadline. The writer (he is given no name) arrives at Lang’s American compound off the coast of Massachusetts just as Lang is formally accused of war crimes in his handling of British involvement in the Iraq War. Needless to say, this is not exactly an ideal time for the ghost to be writing his book, as Lang constantly shuttles off to meet with lawyers and his allies at the White House. This leaves the ghost writer to interact with Lang’s mercurial wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his fiercely loyal aid Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). It is in this seclusion that the ghost writer becomes embroiled in uncovering the facts surrounding his predecessor’s death and the secrets that enshroud Lang’s ascent to power.

The film is based on Robert Harris’ “The Ghost,” a novel that serves as a thinly-veiled criticism of British prime minister Tony Blair’s involvement in aiding the United States-led invasion of Iraq. Harris’ novel was incredibly controversial upon its release in 2007, and Polanski has largely left its plotline intact. However, the film as a whole is less concerned with the politics of the situation than with maintaining its own narrative logic and drive. The political implications often run second to the personal dynamics of the characters.

“The Ghost Writer” is a political thriller of the highest magnitude, something which is pretty incredible to come across in the cinematic dead zone that is the spring. Instead of going for cheap thrills and shocks like many other contemporary thrillers, Polanski has crafted a deliberately paced work that slowly ratchets up the tension and, though the ending may not be realistic in terms of explaining Blair’s actions in office, it certainly does bring together the pieces of its own puzzle quite nicely.

The film’s cast is almost uniformly brilliant, succeeding in making every character feel lived-in even as they hide their motivations throughout the film. McGregor excels as the nameless ghost writer at the film’s center, serving as the audience’s gateway into the intrigues of the Lang compound. Despite the character’s natural role as an observer, McGregor ensures that his character remains both dynamic and simultaneously relatable. Brosnan also does an admirable job imbuing his character with the charisma one imagines such a political figure would possess. Cattrall, best known for her work on TV’s “Sex and the City,” does fine with a character who essentially acts as a red herring in the film’s action. My one quibble with her performance was her English accent which seems to appear and disappear throughout the movie.

The film’s standout, however, is easily Williams as Lang’s wife. Williams grants the character a kind of steely seductiveness, constantly switching between the character’s emotional volatility and pitiable vulnerability. Even when she isn’t the focus of a scene, one can’t help but be drawn to her; without uttering a single word, we can see how she quickly and coolly analyzes all the particulars of the situations that confront her.

Unsurprisingly, Polanski’s direction and screenplay are both top notch. Not a single scene feels superfluous or superficial. In a way, this sparse style is reflected in the film’s unsaturated look. The Langs’ American compound, for instance, looks like a kind of sterile, tomblike IKEA display, while rain always threatens the film’s action, casting everything in shades of steel blue. It’s all very atmospheric and adds to the tensions at the film’s core. The movie also benefits from its great score, composed by the always brilliant Alexandre Desplat, that is alternately thrilling and unnerving.

“The Ghost Writer” is easily the best film I’ve seen so far in what is an admittedly young cinematic year. Such a subtle and satisfying political thriller is not to be missed, especially from a master like Polanski.

Grade: A-