Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010) is the closest that director Roman Polasnski has come to recreating the thrilling magic of Chinatown (1974), and as such, could be viewed as something of a modern classic. It stars Ewan McGregor as The Ghost, a writer brought in to salvage the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, a thinly veiled stand-in for Tony Blair portrayed by a fired-up Pierce Brosnan. The memoir’s former writer recently died a mysterious death, and with Lang in the news for suspicion of war crimes, the publisher (an almost unrecognizable James Belushi) is in a rush to get the book out.

So McGregor’s Ghost is whisked away to Lang’s current compound on Martha’s Vinyard, a place isolated by the ocean, the grey winter season and a chilly personal workforce. Almost immediately he’s sucked into a vacuum of international intrigue and betrayal, and shortly thereafter finds himself dangerously deep in noir-ish waters even the most capable investigator would struggle to navigate.

Capable The Ghost is not. A writer incredulously curious by nature, McGregor’s protagonist resembles Nicholson’s classic Chinatown detective – a man smart enough to put the pieces together, but never wisely nor quickly enough. He’s foolhardy and naive, often frustratingly so, and that’s precisely why he’s chosen for the task...

Thickly atmospheric, The Ghost Writer at times resembles Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), another masterful exercise in suspense crafted by one of cinema’s sharpest directorial minds. Like Shutter, it’s awash in greys and distrust, and features a setting highlighted by its seclusion. And like Shutter, it features some stellar genre performances.

Brosnan is great as the pretty boy politician bewildered by the responsibilities of the choices better political minds made for him. He may be a thinly-veiled appropriation of Tony Blair, but his character and performance are equally resonant of other charismatic but influenced world leaders.

As good as he is, Brosnan’s upstaged by Olivia Williams as the dutiful wife disillusioned by her husband’s poor choices. Ruth Lang is a woman stuck inside the eye of a tornado, watching her marriage (hubby’s having an affair with his assistant, portrayed by a steely Kim Cattrall) and her world ripped apart around her. A talented but undervalued actress (most recently seen on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse), Williams plays her as equal parts broken and resilient. She’s the Faye Dunaway of this Chinatown update, and almost equally as good.

Co-adapted by Polanski and writer Robert Harris (from his own best-selling novel), the screenplay is incredibly well-sculpted. Slow and deliberate, it grips us and pulls us, sternly but quietly, ready to boil over even when very little is happening. Polanski steers us through its complex conspiracies with an eye on the human relationships they affect, ratcheting up the tension on both fronts, crafting disquiet unease not only with the faceless, big picture conspiracy game but the players stuck in it. Every person, every choice, feels threatening. And our protagonist seems so easily ready to fall victim to them.

The Ghost Writer isn’t perfect (but what film is?). If there’s a flaw here it’s found in McGregor, not in his performance (which is truly excellent) but in his character’s reasoning. The Ghost makes a lot of bad choices. That can be aggravating, but at some point we accept it. That’s just who the character is. But WHY he is that way, why he’s so pulled and determined in his investigation even when his life is at stake, is never made clear. Motivations and objectives are often lost within Polanski’s film, buried beneath the tension and craft. There always seems to be a little bit more beneath the surface, and it’s unsettling.

But it is that exact unsettling sentiment that makes Polanski’s thriller so effective. That the last sentence can be applied to Chinatown as well is a statement in and of its own. With his legal troubles having finally caught up to him, there’s no telling exactly when Polanski will make another film (he finished post-production on this one under house arrest). If this is his final picture, it seems appropriate that it is the one nearest to his career-defining masterpiece.

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