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The Ghost Writer is only the third feature that Roman Polanski has directed in the new century, which makes us miss his superb storytelling skills all the more. The director is noted for his vibrant adaptations of modern thriller novels as well as classic works, and this time around he collaborates with the popular author Robert Harris. The intelligent and perceptive story has a direct reference to recent history, as it concerns the reputation of a former British Prime Minister who may or may not be complicit in the United States' extraordinary rendition of terror suspects for purposes of torture. Anyone aware of Polanski's ongoing legal problems will pick up on the fact that a main character's primary concern is to avoid being extradited to another country to stand trial on charges that may or may not be legitimate.
These tensions loom in the background as Polanski keeps us riveted to the film's mystery. Our view is limited to the experiences of the main character, a person never referred to by name. The Ghost Writer (Ewan McGregor) secures the plum job of rewriting the memoirs of ex- Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the work to be done under heavy security at a remote Maine beach house. But the Ghost is soon unnerved by the friction in the Lang household: Lang is preoccupied and impatient, and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams of An Education) expresses bitter resentment. A Brit politician publicly accuses Lang of committing high crimes in office, forcing the retired PM to take time out for image control and legal consultation. As his memoirs are considered an important part of this public relations push the Ghost stays on the job. But he soon discovers that his predecessor -- who was found washed up dead on the beach -- had learned details that link Adam Lang to the C.I.A., through an old colleague, Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson). Emmett denies everything. Complicating matters is the unhappy wife Ruth, who makes moves to seduce the Ghost Writer. Realizing that he may "know too much", the Ghost soon comes to believe that whoever killed Lang's first ghost writer, may be after him as well.
The Ghost Writer has tension, intrigue and refreshingly interesting characters. Polanski helps Pierce Brosnan flesh out a fascinating statesman, a "great man" who in person comes off as thoughtless and insubstantial, a Brit George Bush. Under Polanski's careful gaze, all the expected types -- suspicious mystery man Paul Emmett, efficient personal secretary Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) -- seem more intense than characters in thrillers by others. By placing name actors (James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach) in smaller roles, Polanski doesn't allow us to dismiss their importance to the story. We expect any one of these people to return in a malevolent context.
The Ghost Writer keeps us thinking and rewards our intelligence. Clues are found in traditional ways -- hidden messages in texts and photos hidden away by a dead man, but a car's computer guidance program (why didn't someone think of this before?) also leads the Ghost to the truth behind Adam Lang. None of the usual coincidences and confections of normal thrillers are present. Finally, our hero is truly vulnerable, a given in Polanski films. The Ghost knows he's no match for the security men that follow him around, and although he's not afraid to confront people with potentially dangerous questions, he feels intimidated by Lang's personal assistants. The "ghost" of the previous ghostwriter is also there to remind The Ghost to stay on his toes.
How does The Ghost Writer score among the director's work? Polanski's skill at first-person film narratives is more impressive than ever. We feel marrooned with the Ghost on this Maine island, in the fog, wind and rain. Polanski's somewhat similar horror thriller The 9th Gate worked marvelously, until its confrontation with a real "devil" brought it down to earth. The Ghost Writer conjures a convincing atmosphere of intrigue. Yet it never quite overwhelms us with its fantasy, as had Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. In retrospect, it seems that the Ghost is too sophisticated to do certain things, and to trust certain people. It's far too obvious that the only logical thing for him to do is to sleep alone, find a rowboat and get the hell out of there.
The movie also gives us a heavy feeling of deja vu, Polanski style. The moody, somewhat remote setting reminds us of Knife in the Water. The groundskeeper at the Lang estate putters about much like the Japanese gardener in Chinatown. The high-security manuscript aligns with The Ninth Gate's mystery book and the picture and text clues evoke memories of Rosemary's Baby. And the (unnecessarily) nihilistic conclusion, although impressively staged, seems like a re-run of Chinatown as well. Forget it Ghost, it's the impenetrable, evil intelligence community, a conspiracy as effective as the witches in Rosemary's or the ghouls in The Fearless Vampire Killers. Other elements make the story seem closely related to Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin. I will no doubt flip-flop several times more in my opinion on The Ghost Writer; while watching it I felt transported back to a time when mystery thrillers were smarter than the audience, and were that much more enjoyable for it.
Ewan McGregor carries the movie well even though he hasn't the charisma of earlier film stars (who does?). Kim Cattrall doesn't have a great part but does it more than justice, while Olivia Williams' deceptively "uninvolved" missus is a finely crafted character performance. Ruth Lang at first seems spoiled, spiteful and hungry for affection, and it's easy to take her at face value. It's also important to praise Pierce Brosnan's portrait of an impatient, uncommunicative politician, who may be distracted, clueless -- or a calculating villain. His is the kind of role that needs to be seen twice to appreciate everything that's going on -- like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.
Roman Polanski, had he not sabotaged his career, looked poised to be one of the greatest directors of all time. He's still a strong favorite, the maker of sometimes-commercial hits that are often original works of art. It's a miracle that he's had any kind of career after 1977, but the man is an incredible survivor. The best movies of "the second half" -- Tess, Frantic, The Pianist -- are achievements that would cement the reputation of any other director. Is The Ghost Writer good enough to join that group? I don't know yet.
Summit Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Ghost Writer is actually a Blu-ray + DVD combo. In contrast to earlier combo presentations, both encodings are on opposite sides of the same disc, which means that you can't loan out the DVD copy to your parents. The HD transfer is a beauty that emphasizes the movie's moody overcast weather and texture details in Adam Lang's designer house. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman's images and the invisible special effects come off extremely well.
I didn't notice it on first viewing but The Ghost Writer is relatively profanity-free. As it turns out, the original film had more than its share of four-letter words. To ensure the widest possible theatrical run during Polanski's house arrest in Europe, Summit redubbed many lines. This U.S. Blu-ray uses the same track, but I'm told that a Canadian disc carries a pre-censorship mix. Although I'd be surprised if the profanity adds a great deal, the fact that distributors feel pressed to dilute their movies for American audiences isn't very flattering. This is the first alteration of this kind I've heard of since Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut . (Thanks to Gary Teetzel for this information.)
The disc's featurettes reveal that Lang's beach house is actually a stage interior and that all of the seaside exterior views were added digitally. This is only a surprise because Polanski films scenes as though unimpaired by any physical limitations. Although most of the film was shot overseas for obvious reasons, we're told that a few pickups became second unit shoots in the United States.
One EPK-like featurette covers the production and another centers on interviews with the cast. We don't know if extras producer Laurent Bouzereau's third video piece, an interview with Roman Polanski, was made before or during the director's house arrest. We understand that much of the film's post-production was accomplished while the director's movements were restricted.
The Ghost Writer is an entertaining thriller far superior to what passes for this kind of show nowadays. The first time around I was distracted by outside context concerns; I'm confident that it will become an even richer experience on repeated viewings.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ghost Writer Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.