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The Ghost Writer

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on April 4, 2010


Behold King Child Molester of Pedophilia! Sorry for the bad humour there, folks, but I had to get that out of the way– this is Roman Polanski’s new film. He was in the news not so long ago because the US Government finally decided that they wanted to extradite him in order to try him for these old rape charges lodged by a 13 year-old girl from 1977. I’m not weighing in on what I think of his actions or of the charges. I honestly don’t know much about either, but I will say that rape and pedophilia are very, very wrong and icky on so many levels. So, there’s that. Oh, some other Polanski police-related background info: he had been the initial suspect in his wife’s death in 1969. And by “death”, I mean the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, along with those of Steve Parent, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Jay Sebring. Tate’s belly was stabbed several times, as well, ensuring that the baby would not survive. In case you were not aware, I’m referring to the most famous victims of The Manson Family, led by one Charles Manson. Just a bit of trivia for you; Polanksi’s been through some shit in his life. Oh, and did I mention he escaped from the Kraków Ghetto in 1943, his father survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria and his mother died at Auschwitz? Yeah… not exactly a trouble-free man, one might say.

But that’s neither here nor there! Despite my love for spewing film-related trivia at you, we’re here to talk about a movie! Shocking, right? I will come clean right away and admit that a large selling point for me was the fact that Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan in the latest Star Wars Trilogy, Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting, etc. and so forth) stars in this film. I adore him more than any sane person who doesn’t actually know the object of their affection should, but what can I say? He’s not only incredibly sexy, but by all accounts he’s funny, charming, sweet, humble, and laid-back. Oh, and he’s talented AND is happy to strip for the camera. If I had a “swoon” emoticon, I would use it. But I’ll address actors and performances later. The other reason why I was interested in seeing this movie is that it does hit a bit of a genre sweet-spot for me: political thriller. I’m actually more picky about them than one might think, but since I didn’t get the feeling of this one being overly-preachy, and I didn’t really know the details of the story to see the parallels being drawn that I will also discuss later. What I got from the trailer really the gist of the film: Ewan McGregor is brought on to be the new “ghost writer” for a former British Prime Minister’s memoirs after the last ghost writer is found dead. The trailer indicates that there’s more to the death of the former ghost writer than meets the eye (authorities assumed he either threw himself off the ferry he was on or he fell in and drowned due to his high blood alcohol content), and that Ewan might be in danger due to his work on this project, as well. It also indicates that the deeds of the former Prime Minster are more sinister than expected…

…which all lead to my butt in a theatre seat. Now I’ll give you a few more details that, I believe, will not ruin the film for you. It becomes quite evident that the former Prime Minster, Adam Lang (played by the ever-charming Pierce Brosnan) is a stand-in for former Prime Minister Tony Blair (if you had read the book “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, upon which this movie was based, you might have known about that already).  The allusions to the idea that Lang was a lapdog to the US Government is brought up repeatedly. That and the notion of war crimes involving terrorists and Lang’s cooperation with the CIA creates the overall swirl of drama central to the atmosphere that Ewan walks into when he agrees to pick up where the former writer left off. It’s also central to the political thriller aspect of the story. All of the questions, the investigations, the second-guessing, the danger– it’s all linked back to these allegations and what role the United States played in the PM’s political career. I will say that I think Harris and Polanski actually created a screenplay that made it somewhat easy to overlook those allusions, which I often did while watching the film. That’s not to say I flat-out refused to acknowledge them, but it felt more like an alternate reality where a different Prime Minister could have dealt with some of the “war on terror” in similar ways and didn’t have to be Tony Blair. It wasn’t blatantly offensive to me, is my point.

While the criticisms being thrown at Lang, along with the footage of protestors and the like outside of his beach house in New England, all plays into the hands of an exceedingly liberal agenda to me in most situations, the film is told from the point of view of a character who really doesn’t care about the political implications of any of this. The ghost writer is our protagonist, and because he’s watching the allegations from outside but is tucked within “Team Lang”, we see it from both sides. Rather, we get to see how exactly such things affect a politician in reality, not the face he projects or the assumptions made by the talking heads on cable news. And while the allegations seem pretty heinous to those who are against many of the tactics employed in the “war on terror”, the film doesn’t really argue that they were bad. I had felt that the film was portraying Lang as being just as horrid as his critics were stating, but he makes a statement at a point that, I feel, offered an interesting counterbalance and actually put his character, as well as his action as a PM, into balance. And trust me when I say, again, that I’m not ruining the story or the intrigue for you. What’s really at play here is what, exactly, the former ghost writer found out, why what he found was so important, and whom is so troubled by the uncovering of the information. It’s an interesting game of “is there something to be found or not?” and it really does hold up throughout the film.The only thing that doesn’t work, quite honestly, is about the last minute of the film, which was enough to seriously irk me and negatively affect my enjoyment of the film.

Polanksi’s directing is quite suitable to this storyline. I mean, he did do Chinatown. He throws in some dashes of film noir in this film, and I enjoyed the murkiness of the location mixed with the murkiness of the story. New England beaches never make me think of brightly-coloured oceans, long stretches of rich sand, and almost blinding sunlight. I think of rockiness, reeds, greyish blues and overcast. Perhaps I’m biased, but that’s exactly what I think of and that’s what he delivered, even though he clearly wasn’t filming in the United States for fear of being arrested. Props to the art department for overhauling an island in Germany and making it look like Martha’s Vineyard. Polanski got the tone and the timing right for a thriller. He wasn’t overt, he didn’t seek to shock us at every turn or build us up for a number of false-starts and crazy twists. The whole thing slowly built up into a believable string of events, including those that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the plot line. I also found myself laughing significantly more than I expected to, and not because of unintentionally funny moments. The script and certain scenes were genuinely crafted with wry humour, and instead of feeling like comic relief was being thrown in just for the sake of adding levity to an overall suspenseful film, it flowed naturally. I rather enjoyed the subtlety and nuances of Polanski’s film-making in this, plus his attention to detail. It really was masterfully done, with the exception of that bit in the end which really ruffles my feathers. I also want to note that Polanski does take a moment to draw attention to his own situation of condemnation, essentially thumbing his nose at the United States for being a country that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, only to be in the company of countries like Iran, Iraq, “certain countries in Africa”, etc. It’s as if to say, “Look at you ridiculous fools! You condemn me to a life of exile due to a decades-old rape case, and yet you’re the only ‘developed and advanced’ country that pretends like the ICC doesn’t matter! You let WAR CRIMINALS roam free if it’s according to your liking! Hypocrites!” Meanwhile, Lang is living in exile from his own country, just as Polanski was.

What helps make this film so enjoyable and believable are the performances. As I said, I am a deeply-devoted Ewan McGregor fan, and his smart, cocky, quick-witted ghost writer is spot-on. Pierce Brosnan is perfectly cast as a man of power, a man who has strong convictions but is flawed and haunted by doubt. Perfectly smooth when needed, but also clearly fractured and beaten, as a man in such a position likely would be. And who wouldn’t believe that Pierce could play a Prime Minister? He was James Bond, after all. Olivia Williams, who appeared on the short-lived Joss Whedon show ‘Dollhouse’, plays Lang’s wife and his top adviser, Ruth. She’s clearly devoted to her husband, and stands by his side at all costs, but the marriage is obviously troubled. That would largely be due to the presence of Lang’s secretary and right-hand girl, Amelia Bly, played by Kim Cattrall of ‘Sex and the City’ fame (she’s Samantha, the older superslut, in case you were wondering). Oh, and she’s British– did you know that? I didn’t. Anyway, both women were perfectly fine in their roles, though I have to say that I’m not loving Olivia Williams playing the strong, yet emotionally destroyed woman-in-charge kind of role. Perhaps it’s because that’s what she was in ‘Dollhouse’ and I don’t recall her in pretty much anything else, but it felt tired to me. She also comes off as cold at all times, but I think that’s the nature of her character in this film, which works perfectly. Even when Ruth is trying to be appealing and potentially seductive, there’s a disconnect. There are other surprise performances in this film that made me schoolgirl-giddy: Timothy Hutton and Jim Belushi (who is looking dangerously large and strangely bald in this film) are part of the publishing team who meet with Ewan to get him in on the job. Tom Wilkinson, a very famous British actor who has been in films like The Full Monty and Batman Begins, plays an American (which is hilarious, to me) who went to school for a sort while with Adam Lang. I adore Tom Wilkinson, by the way. And there was an extra, EXTRA special appearance by the legendary Eli Wallach of The Magnificent Seven, who plays an elderly neighbour of Lang’s on Martha’s Vineyard. He tells the story of what happened on that fateful night that the first ghost writer met his demise, and there’s a sort of old-school mystery feel to the scene. I absolutely love Eli Wallach, so my excitement was palpable.

Do I recommend this film? Yes. I know, I wasn’t pleased with the end of it (quite frankly, I left the theatre rather steamed about it), and I’m still not. But I enjoyed every other moment of the film, and, thinking back, I think I can live with the ending. It will always irk me, and I’d be happy to discuss exactly why with anyone who wants to talk about it in the comments, but unlike other films with less-than-stellar endings, this one didn’t ruin the film for me. And the ride was enough fun to make me think largely of what I did enjoy rather than that moment at the end. If I ever own this film, I’ll likely do what I do with other films that have a “point of no return” moment for me: simply stop watching. Luckily for me, that moment is literally the last minute of the film. Don’t let that scare you away from it, though! I’m sure plenty of other people were perfectly satisfied with it, and it fits the genre quite well. In fact, if it has been executed in a different manner, it’s possible that I would have found it acceptable. However, it is what it is, and for me it just didn’t hit the spot. But, overall, the film was a highly enjoyable political thriller/mystery. And it’s not even too heavy on the politics, for those of you who are turned off by such things. I just spoke a lot about that aspect because I happen to be interested in politics as well as film :). So see this movie if you like a good mystery/thriller, and especially see it if you like political thrillers.


4 Responses to “The Ghost Writer”

  1. Tentacles said

    Great review, leaving me with a desire to watch a film I might not have otherwise thought about watching.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Aw, thanks! I am glad I was able to whet your interest :). I think it’s a worthwhile watch, and since you liked the mystery and intrigue of Shutter Island, I think you might enjoy this one, as well. I will note that this one is more understated than Shutter Island in terms of the build-up of suspense, but I think it’s actually a smoother and more enjoyable journey :).

  2. Serryl said

    Thanks for the heads up. This sounds like a masterful execution of a challenging subject. Anytime a writer or director takes on a project with multiple parallels with real life, I feel it’s difficult to not come across as to obvious with some elements or to make it appealing to a wide variety of people. I will try to see this one.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Well it’s obvious in some ways but it’s easy to work around it. I mean, it’s clearly alluding to Tony Blair, but it’s not exactly his life. And it’s easy enough to pretend like it’s not Tony Blair, so I think it’s workable :P.

      I hope you get to see it! Come back and tell me what you think about the ending!

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