Monday, February 22, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski has had a varied career, but some of his best work has been the taut, tense adult thriller. I don't mean "adult" as in pornographic, but adult as in grown-up, with very few frills and toys that many lesser films use to distract you from their storytelling flaws. Films like Repulsion, Chinatown, Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, and The Tenant set new standards for the genre, and The Ghost Writer is a fine addition to their ranks.

Ewan McGregor plays The Ghost - his character is never even given a proper name. He is a ghost writer, and a fairly successful one. He's a gifted writer in his own right, and could have a career as a "proper writer," but he seems to be content with where he is. His latest book, about a magician, is called "I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered."

The Ghost is hired to finish the memoirs of a former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a character apparently inspired by Tony Blair (I don't know enough about British politics to comment further on the comparison, I'm afraid). There is a draft of the book, but it's a mess, and it was written by Lang's assistant, who has mysteriously turned up dead in what is being called a suicide (but this is a thriller, so who wants odds on how true that is). The Ghost is told he has a month to finish the job - which is essentially rewriting the thing - and he's flown out to (I think) Martha's Vineyard, where Lang and his entourage are staying.

It's not long before The Ghost realizes that he's gotten himself in over his head. He drafts a statement of response when Lang is accused of war crimes, and Lang's wife Ruth (Dollhouse's Olivia Williams) calls him an "accomplice." This is only a little bit of a joke. The Ghost is originally put up in a nearby hotel, but when the press (not to mention protesters) get wind that Lang is in the area, he's brought to the compound to stay there, where he'll be safe and can avoid attention and awkward questions. The Ghost becomes rather close with Ruth while Lang is in Washington, and eventually finds some clues to the truth about Lang in the former assistant's personal effects. Against his better judgment, and despite the already murderous deadline for the book being brought up another two weeks, The Ghost follows these clues well past the point where he finds his life in danger.

I won't say more than that, plot-wise. It's probably impossible to completely divorce this film from the name Roman Polanski. There are some pretty blatant real-world parallels, and not just the Iraq aspects, but they don't feel forced (or at least they didn't to me, but perhaps my sympathies for Polanski get in the way there). There is a rather pointed scene dealing with Lang's inability to go back to England, and there's kind of a theme of missing the forest for the trees in this society that gives as much (if not more) news weight to celebrity sex scandals as it does to the wars we're involved in. But I feel Roland Pitt is doing here what all artists do, which is comment on the world around them. His observations are no less true, even if they do come from a prejudiced source.

The cast is exceptionally strong. Ewan McGregor holds the film together with his unassuming performance. Pierce Brosnan, who I've never really imagined had much of a range, is surprisingly menacing. Tom Wilkinson is excellent, as always, with the limited screen time he has. There's a cameo by Eli Wallach that's pretty cool as well. But the real jewel in the crown, in my opinion, is Olivia Williams. She's played several icy British women, none more memorable than Dollhouse head-bitch-in-charge Adelle DeWitt, but in The Ghost Writer her subtle and complex Ruth Lang makes the whole movie.

One reviewer called this movie "thin," as thrillers go, but I found it a refreshing throwback to good old meat-and-potatoes thrillers. It's not thin at all - there's plenty going on - it's just not hopped up on steroids like so many thrillers have become in the wake of movies like the Bourne series. There were, however, two flaws in my mind.

First, and I say this as someone who loves Kim Cattrall, she seems rather miscast here as Lang's ... well I'm not sure what she is - a secretary of sorts, I guess. At the very least, they could have let her be an American instead of asking her to try on an English accent. I don't have much of a problem with her performance or her character - though it seems kind of throwaway, as if the story decided it needed another sexy woman in the mix to spice things up. But the accent, which she never quite fully masters, just doesn't fit, even when she's not mangling it.

Second, I'm not sure who decided to go for a PG-13 rating come hell or high water, but it was very obvious that they'd dubbed over a handful of f-words. Sometimes to something silly like "freaking," sometimes to something like "bugger" that's just as offensive to Brits, as I understand, but less offensive to American audiences. I doubt that many people between the ages of 13 and 17 would be interested in this film to begin with, so I can't imagine it was worth the bother.

In any case, despite a couple of (in my opinion) minor flaws, it's a very strong movie. And it's good to know that Mr. Polanski, now in his seventies, still very much knows his way around a camera. I really hope he gets to keep making films.

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