Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

by Eric Melin on March 7, 2010

in Print Reviews

Overcast skies and drab blue/gray interiors dominate Roman Polanski’s smart, tense thriller “The Ghost Writer,” setting up a foreboding mood that never lets up, even when it finally seems that all of its mysteries are resolved. (They’re not.)

Based on Robert Harris’ 2007 novel “The Ghost,” Polanski’s film is a modern lesson in expertly controlled tension. The title character (whose name is never revealed and is played by Ewan McGregor) racks up such an enormous series of bad decisions that his situation becomes all too plausible. Maybe he is too focused on his task–re-writing the memoirs of an embattled former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang and played by Pierce Brosnan. For a writer, though, he has an astounding inability to see the writing on the wall.

the ghost writer brosnan 2010 mcgregorLang is the most dangerous kind of politician–one who has mastered image management but none of the subtleties of governance. His book is a perfect example of his shallowness. Each story is a carefully remembered and rehearsed anecdote bent on propping up the world leader’s status as an important historical figure, with none of the personal insight that makes an autobiography interesting. His ghostwriter has that unenviable task, made even more unenviable by the fact that the man who tried before him may have committed suicide.

Brosnan–perfect in the role–is all charm, but with an undercurrent of rage that’s let loose at the slightest suggestion that beneath his chiseled exterior, things are not precisely as he would have you believe. Lang is a very thinly veiled swipe at Tony Blair, whose recent present-day troubles echo his doppleganger’s. Seen as a yes man for the U.S., one former cohort in the British government suggests Lang be turned over to the International Criminal Court for handing terror suspects to the C.I.A. to be tortured.

williams ghost writer 2010 wilkinsonOne of the most fascinating elements of “The Ghost Writer” is the behind-the-scenes mechanism of a very public figure. Surrounded by a team of security and PR people, Lang and his cynical, hard-nosed wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) are mice scurrying around in a hard-angled glass cage. Their modern beach house at rainy and gloomy Martha’s Vineyard turns into a press hotspot and suspicion is directed all of Lang’s employees, including curvy blonde aide Ameila (Kim Cattrall), with whom the former PM is having an affair.

Somewhere around the time that the ghostwriter offers his help drafting a public response for Lang and Amelia informs him that his is now “an accomplice,” things start to turn sinister. There are mysterious clues left by the dead ghostwriter, black cars following McGregor everywhere, and a general paranoia creeping in.

ghost writer brosnan cattrall 2010Polanski is a master of mood and pacing. “The Ghost Writer” moves forward at an assured pace and sprinkles in an acerbic sense of humor, mostly from Ruth’s loathing and Lang’s increasingly dangerous transparency. Brosnan and Williams steal the show from McGregor, but that’s kind of the point.

As The Ghost, McGregor is the stand-in for the audience, drawn in over his head and struggling to figure out the high stakes world of political intrigue. It’s only fitting that he remain a bit of a blank slate.

The fixed-frame last shot of the movie is memorable in an late 60s/early 70s kind of way, when auteurs like Polanski were experimenting with artful ways to tell suspense stories. Although “The Ghost Writer” is more traditional in its storytelling than his early masterpieces like “Rosemary’s Baby” or”Knife in the Water,” the man hasn’t lost any of his ability to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.

If you’re looking for comparisons between this film and the real-life Polanski controversy, that’s easy to do as well. After all, the plot is essentially about a man exiled overseas by a hot-button political issue of his own making. It should be noted that the director spares Brosnan’s character little sympathy and no easy way out.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave Carson April 19, 2010 at 9:25 am

Meh. I give it a minor rock fist up. It was a who’s who’s list of “oh yeah, I forgot about him” actors (Timothy Hutton?! James Belushi? Kim Cattrell???!!! *note: with the WORST British accent ever & she was born there!) While it wasn’t ‘poorly” acted, it did feel like TV drama at times.

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2 Dave Carson April 19, 2010 at 9:25 am

Meh. I give it a minor rock fist up. It was a who’s who’s list of “oh yeah, I forgot about him” actors (Timothy Hutton?! James Belushi? Kim Cattrell???!!! *note: with the WORST British accent ever & she was born there!) While it wasn’t ‘poorly” acted, it did feel like TV drama at times.

Reply

3 mariet August 15, 2010 at 3:44 am

Cattral’s accent was the worst English accent I have ever heard in my 60 years. Yes, she was born in England but only lived there for 3 months. Horrible accent, horrible acting. It was impossible for me to get into the movie because all I could think about was her awful accent. Why would they cast her when there are thousands of actresses who could have done a better job. She brought nothing to the role. My partially deaf dog could do a better accent.

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