Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

By Matthew Huntley

March 4, 2010

Looks more like a ghost *reader*.

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The Ghost Writer starts off with a brilliant scene. A ferry boat pulls up to a dock. The crew members disengage the ramp and the onboard vehicles start to drive off - all except one. This lone SUV had a driver but we don't see what happened to him until the next shot. How did he get there? More importantly, who's behind it? These are the film's burning questions.

I say this scene is brilliant because it shows us everything we need to know through action and atmosphere. No dialogue; no music; just pure visuals. It reminded me of how a classic noir film from the 1940s might have opened, perhaps one directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who is often considered a manifestation of brilliance. In the first few minutes, we're presented the hook that keeps us involved in the rest of the film. Credit must be given to director Roman Polanski for grabbing us right from the get go.

Granted, the film's opening momentum doesn't last throughout the entire picture, but this is still a grounded, patient, and ultimately uncommon thriller that operates more on real time instead of Hollywood time. It waits for information to be found by the characters rather than having it jump out at them simply for our benefit, and it revives traditional conventions, mostly by sidestepping our expectations in a perfectly logical fashion. Plus, it doesn't feel the need to explain all of its events. For these reasons, The Ghost Writer is more intelligent than many contemporary thrillers. It's perhaps not as entertaining, but we still admire its technique.

Ewan McGregor stars as The Ghost, a writer hired to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). This particular assignment goes outside the norm of most political memoirs because Lang is presently being investigated for war crimes, which compounds the Ghost's pressure to deliver a book that will not only recoup millions but also save the face of its subject. The Ghost is reluctant at first, not least because his predecessor is the same man who washes ashore at the beginning (remember the missing driver?), but the handsome fee wins him over.

The publishers demand the book be finished on Martha's Vineyard, where Lang is being put up in a luxurious beach house. Such a location gives Polanski the opportunity to show us an extended sequence when the Ghost must travel from London to the United States, symbolizing his long descent into a world he doesn't understand. The other stipulation is he only has a month to complete it, which seems near impossible after he tells Lang's wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), "All the words are there; they're just in the wrong order." He's also not allowed to take the manuscript out of the office because, according to Lang's secretary (Kim Cattrall), it could be a matter of national security.


As tension rises over Lang's suspicious involvement in exploiting terrorism for his own personal vendettas, the Ghost starts to uncover, mostly by accident, disturbing secrets that may or may not lead to Lang's guilt. The screenplay by Robert Harris, based on his own novel, paints Lang as an aloof man known more for his charm and public speaking skills than his political ideologies. He's a man who never seems in full control of his own decisions. Obviously, Harris wrote the Lang character as a metaphor for Tony Blair, not to mention George W. Bush.

One of the unexpected charms of the film is its audacious sense of humor, which made me realize most thrillers often take themselves too seriously. When the Ghost realizes he's in over his head, he sheepishly tells his agent, "I knew this was a bad idea." By plugging in moments of wit and sarcasm, the characters become more human. They are not necessarily indestructible. Alexandre Desplat's score complements this angle by being both serious and playful at the same time.

There are a lot of conversations in the film, and I suppose some sequences could have been edited down a bit (even Hitchcock was guilty of being too in love with his own filmmaking, including the drawn out tailing sequence in Vertigo), but I guess its calmness is another way for Polanski to ground the film in a relative reality (aside from a few theatrics, it's not a completely implausible story). It's plodding at times, but we really come to care and empathize with the Ghost because of how painstaking his job becomes. We witness the toll it takes on his mental and physical health, not to mention his safety. McGregor is a good choice for the lead; he's both sympathetic and charming.

Despite its sometimes questionable pace, The Ghost Writer is a delight to watch. The screenplay stays afloat by never succumbing to tired clich├ęs; the performances are strong (and probably even stronger once we discover the ending); the locations are unique and ominous; and the direction is completely assured. It's obvious Polanski is making an homage to the style of Hitchcock, but he's not deriving from it. He's proving, as many great filmmakers do, that a classic style is one that never goes out of style.



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