It's hard to mention the name Roman Polanski without getting all the attached baggage associated with him. Currently suffering through "chalet" arrest in Switzerland, the 76-year-old director is fighting extradition to Los Angeles to face charges of sexual assault that have lay in limbo for more than 30 years.
Polanski is a divisive, controversial figure to many, due to this event that occurred in 1977. What's forgotten in the sensationalist world of modern news reporting is just how talented he is as a film director. The Ghost Writer, while not in the neighborhood of Polanski's all-time great movies, is still a vibrant, challenging film, regardless of the director's situation with the law.
The Ghost Writer opens on a dark, rainy night. A car on a ferry is taken off by tow-truck after the driver never appears for it. A corpse is seen face down in the tumbling waves on a beach. It's the abandoned vehicle's owner, and he was once the writer for Adam Lang's autobiography.
A new ghost writer, or ghost, is needed to take over the project, and the job has to be done on the quick.
Meet the new boss if you get the job as the new ghost: Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is the ex-prime minister of England. He is dashing, extremely wealthy and being accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court for illegally handing over terror suspects to the United States. The suspects would soon after undergo various methods of torture after the handover, hence the tag of war criminal.
It's not a good time to be hired to write Lang's memoir -- previous author is dead, vociferously zealous protesters greet Lang wherever he goes, and there is the little moral quandary of working in the midst of a possible war criminal. The payout of $250,000 for a month's labor can be persuasive though, and Ewan McGregor is hired as "The Ghost."
He begins to work on the manuscript in a highly secure, ultra-modern, incredibly beautiful seaside house. The book is a disaster and as The Ghost gets drawn into Lang's world, secrets begin to reveal themselves. One writer dead and the next one heading in the same direction it begins to look like. It can't help The Ghost's state of mind that he stays at a completely empty hotel, where danger lurks at every turn in the stillness. The shadows might be threats, or they might just be unlit rooms and hallways.
The Ghost Writer is Polanski embracing the world and style of Alfred Hitchcock. It's a terrific match.
The film is tightly constrained with Polanski in complete control. He slowly pulls the audience into the spell of the story, scene by scene, revelation by revelation. We follow McGregor's character down the rabbit hole, from confusion to the risk of too much knowledge as various truths are exposed.
Polanski working in the suspense genre is a perfect fit. His best films from the 1960s and 1970s -- Knife in the Water (1962), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) -- embraced similar kinds of claustrophobic mysteries. The Ghost Writer has the same feel and tone to some of Polanski's best work from his heyday as a director.
The sense of dread and foreboding in The Ghost Writer is so omnipresent it is an important unnamed character in the film. Director of photography Pawel Edelman wonderfully shot the film with a muted, effective color palette. Grey is the dominant hue. The bleak, desolate ocean side setting and the washed out skies add to the feeling of isolation as the story tightens around The Ghost.
McGregor is fine as the lead and the rest of the ensemble cast deliver smart, solid performances of Robert Harris and Polanski's crisp, tart script. A few actors stood out among the pack. Tom Wilkinson is an actor's actor, and he and McGregor have a tense, key scene that is a highlight of the film. Olivia Williams is properly dour as Lang's put-upon wife, Ruth. James Belushi and Eli Wallach appear very briefly but chew up their scenes in such a way I wanted more from both of them. With Wallach, that's no surprise, but seeing Belushi with giant shaved dome eating up dialogue, that was an unexpected and pleasant shock.
It's always enjoyable to see an intelligent film where the viewer is in the dark, just like some of the characters on screen are. That's the case with The Ghost Writer.
It successfully dances a precarious line between pace and suspense. Polanski has drowned his film with layers of gloomy, grim atmosphere, political intrigue and paranoia that make it an entertaining concoction no matter what the director's current, or future, living situation might entail.
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