FILM REVIEW: The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (Germany, 2010)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams

magazine began their review of The Ghost Writer with the phrase: “Roman Polanski also makes films”. The furore surrounding Polanski’s recent detention has become so bound up with his latest film, that there has to be a conscious effort to separate the filmmaker from the films he makes. To some extent this is impossible, since filmmaking is a highly personal medium. But for all his controversies (none of which I care to defend), Polanski’s films have never attempted to defend or condone his actions. To appreciate his work we don’t have to forgive and forget, but we shouldn’t let our personal feelings towards the artist prejudice our judgement of his art.

Taken outside of the current imbroglio, there can be little doubt that The Ghost Writer is a brilliant thriller. Polanski takes all the best elements of Robert Harris’ novel, elaborates upon its themes and draws on common motifs in his classic work to create a highly gripping and intensely political film. It isn’t as insightful or ultra-modern as The Bourne Ultimatum, and its political analysis is occasionally shallow, but nobody could accuse Polanski of soft-pedalling or displaying contempt for the source material.

The Ghost Writer
draws heavily on Polanski’s earlier work, applying the classic techniques of his early horrors and thrillers to examine a thoroughly modern subject. The recurring shots of the beach and the desolate feel of the island owe a lot to the opening of Macbeth, in which the witches conspire upon the sands to effectively bring down Scotland from within. There are also clear hints of The Tenant in the interior scenes, particularly the shots of Ewan McGregor wandering around the house. Polanski has always been fascinated by the idea of architecture being the expression of some hidden evil or psychosis, and he shoots the various offices like rooms in a prison.On a more indirect level, the film owes a debt to both Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick in the slow build-up of suspense and the chilling feeling of déjà vu. On one level the Ghost (who is never named) is retreading the steps of his predecessor, and there are a couple of occasions in which he feels he has been here before – something examined prominently in The Shining, and to a lesser extent in Vertigo.

But the central theme or technique of The Ghost Writer is one which runs through most of Polanski’s work. The Ghost is a classic Polanski protagonist who over the course of the film is irreversibly drawn into a situation which is growing ever darker and more desperate. There is a feeling of things becoming increasingly complex and spiralling out of control, to the point at which our hero feels the need to leave as much out of panic as of disillusionment. And throughout there is the same sense of bitter cynicism which worked so brilliantly in Chinatown: the idea of a dark world closing in around our hero, who inevitably concludes that you just can’t win.
As a means to explore global politics and the manipulation of the truth, you couldn’t have asked for a more refreshing approach. One of the side effects of the Bourne series, as brilliant and engrossing as they are, is that many modern political thrillers lack a sense of atmosphere, the sense of intimidating claustrophobia which is created by the visuals. The Ghost Writer is visually ravishing and the colours pull us into the emotional development of the characters. Pawel Edelman, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on The Pianist, bathes the screen in stark whites and regal blues; whether we’re looking at the roaring sea or one of Pierce Brosnan’s suits, we’re aware of authority and the resulting unease which comes from being so close to so much power.
The politics of The Ghost Writer are more complex than many have concluded. The allusions to Tony Blair and the surrounding issues of war crimes have been widely discussed, and the film is on one level allegorical. But even if the film wears that part on its sleeve, the central conceit is still executed in a really exciting way. We are teased by the initial prospect of the allegory, and then the subsequent little threads which are explored through different media help to add a real sense of depth.

The true complexity of The Ghost Writer, however, lies less in the political allegory and more in the character of The Ghost. Why is he nameless? Who does he represent? On one level, the Ghost is the insignificant public, the ‘normal people’ over whom the politicians rule. Although seemingly passive and docile, he occasionally pushes things and asks questions which those in power deem he shouldn’t ask. Just as politicians claim to represent their public and yet make a habit of ignoring them, so the Ghost is largely ignored by Lang, who keeps calling him ‘man’ since he can’t remember his name.

On another level, the Ghost is a challenge to the received knowledge of history. He is a nameless force of resistance, rebelling against the means by which politicians twist the truth and rewrite their legacy. The confrontations between the Ghost and Adam Lang are a symbolic conflict between the official version of what happened, the ‘legacy’ of his government, and the hidden reality or ‘truth’. It is a battle of wits between image and truth, and the Ghost is the reality of Lang’s past following him around.The Ghost Writer combines a series of great performances with a script that bristles with tension and black comedy. After the Ghost marginally escapes being killed on the ferry, he meets with the former Foreign Secretary who reassures him: “They can’t drown two of you – you’re not kittens!”. Ewan McGregor really comes through, mastering the London accent and delivering his best performance since Big Fish. Despite a couple of OTT moments, Pierce Brosnan is very convincing, using Adam Lang to send up his former self like he did in The Tailor of Panama. Kim Cattrall is a pleasant surprise as the icy secretary, proving there is more to her than Sex and the City. And both Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson give very strong supporting performances, the former bolstered by her execution of the final twist.

The ending has come in for a lot of stick from both critics and fan of the novel. It is a partial failure, since the final twist is rather obvious compared to the rest of the film. It feels too close to John le Carré or the Cambridge spies to really cut the mustard in 2010. That said, the final shot is absolutely perfect: having been knocked down by a car, the pages of the original manuscript (which the Ghost was carrying) are one by one blown away in the breeze. Having led us to believe that the truth will out, and evil will get its comeuppance, Polanski’s cynicism wins the day: the truth is blown away, lost forever, and nobody notices or cares.The Ghost Writer is a brilliant marriage of everything you could possibly want from a thriller – it’s exciting, it’s relevant, it’s beautifully made and it has a sense of humour. Most of the little imperfections which emerge are either compensated for the substance or swiftly forgotten in the thrill of the chase. It’s isn’t Polanski’s finest film by quite some distance, and will end up being seen as a minor work like Tess or Frantic. But it is still a damn fine piece of filmmaking from one of the true originals of cinema. If this turns out to be Polanski’s last film, it’s a very fine way to bow out.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: A great (possible) finale to a great career


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