A superb Hitchcockian thriller and pitch-black comedy, Roman Polanski´s The Ghost Writer is one of the director’s best films in his post-1970s career, after he fled the US when charged with sexual assault of a minor in 1977. Post-production on The Ghost Writer was completed in late 2009 while Polanski was jailed and then placed under house arrest in Switzerland on the 30-year-old charges.
The film excels in any event, but it´s impossible to separate the material from Polanski´s personal life, especially given the timing of the release. Apart from some surface similarities – involving the far-reaching hand of the United States and a character put on a very public trial for his (purported) past crimes – Polanski imbues the proceedings with palpable senses of dread, claustrophobia, and paranoia.
The Ghost Writer kicks right off with a brilliantly-composed slow-burn opening aboard a docked ferry; a group of cars exit the boat one-by-one into a stormy night, but one ominously stays behind and is eventually towed away. Something isn´t right. A man´s body is glimpsed washed up on the shore.
The man is Mike McAra, who was ghost-writing the memoirs ex-Prime Minister of Britain, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The publisher needs a new writer to make good on their $10 million investment, and so steps in our unnamed protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor and referred to throughout as ‘The Ghost´. He´s to turn McAra´s rough copy – guarded by lock & key at Lang´s sprawling beachfront Massachusetts estate – into a best-seller in a month´s time.
The Ghost should´ve known something was wrong when he was mugged for a manuscript (most likely a decoy) given to him by Lang´s lawyer. But the pay is too good, and soon he´s at Lang´s estate reading the “cure for insomnia” and interviewing Lang under the watchful eyes of his secretary Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams).
And wouldn´t you know it, as soon as The Ghost arrives Lang is charged with war crimes relating to his turnover of terror suspects by the International Criminal Court; the publishers now want a product in two weeks to capitalize on the publicity. And then The Ghost starts digging around Lang´s past and the mysterious circumstances surrounding McAra´s death…
The Ghost Writer is based on a novel by Robert Harris, a former BBC TV reporter who has clearly based some of his characterizations on real political figures (hint: Tony Blair), and the screenplay was co-authored by Harris and Polanski. The plotting is tightly structured, though as with any thriller, if you deconstruct it long enough you might start to see holes. I´m not entirely sure the denouement is entirely satisfactory, as scripted, either; it´s nicely ambiguous, but some of the events leading up to it feel illogical.
Polanski´s direction, however – precise and exacting – makes up for any concerns about the plot. Rarely in contemporary cinema do we see a director in such control of his craft: themes fully explored, shots and sequences carefully composed to illicit the proper response. A few individual scenes – including two right at the finale – are so well-handled and memorable on a pure filmmaking level that you´re willing to forgive any inconsistencies in the plot surrounding them. This isn´t a Chinatown but it´s leaps and bounds above a Frantic or The Ninth Gate; only rarely can we appreciate this kind of material at the level The Ghost Writer operates.
A wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat evokes a little of famed Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann. The oppressively rainy atmosphere and Cape Cod setting is nicely captured by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, even though most scenes (for obvious reasons) used Germany as a stand-in.