The Ghost Writer

Movie Information

The Story: A ghost writer is hired to polish the memoirs of a former British prime minister after the mysterious death of the original writer. The Lowdown: A complete return to form for Roman Polanski -- a quietly intense psychological and political thriller that ranks up there with the filmmaker's great works. Not to be missed.
Score:

Genre: Psychological Political Thriller
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson
Rated: PG-13

Classicism has returned to the movies this year with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and now Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Don’t look to these movies for the latest in jittery-cam filmmaking, pointlessly peripatetic editing or amateurish acting being palmed off as realism. These are finely crafted works by filmmakers who appreciate professionalism and aren’t jumping on the latest trend for fear of being perceived as old-fashioned. Instead, they make movies rather than worry about such foolishness—and it pays dividends, since The Ghost Writer and Shutter Island get my vote for the best movies of 2010 so far.

The Ghost Writer is the best film Polanski has made in more than 30 years. At age 76, Polanski has made a film that is fully worthy of setting alongside his masterpieces of the 1960s and ‘70s. In fact, The Ghost Writer has much in common with some of those films. Its isolated setting is reminiscent of Cul-de-Sac (1966)—a fact that offers some hint to the shape of the story the film finally pieces together. The film’s examination of political corruption is an extension on a bigger scale of that in Chinatown (1974). The film’s overriding theme of the loss of personal identity—or of your identity being swallowed up by that of another—is straight out of The Tenant (1976). Though The Ghost Writer is a political thriller and not a psychological horror picture like The Tenant, the two films are very much kindred spirits.

The Ghost Writer starts with an ominous scene on a ferry at night—one that recalls the moment in Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932) where cars in traffic have to go around a car that is at a stand-still because its driver has been murdered. In this case, the cars on the ferry have to go around a car because its driver isn’t there. The car owner’s body washes up on a beach and he’s presumed to have drunkenly fallen overboard during the crossing. The man’s death is what sets the plot in motion, since the dead man had been ghost writing the autobiography of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), allowing for the introduction of a new ghost writer—a character of so little personal substance that he’s billed simply as “the Ghost” (Ewan McGregor). His job is to infuse some life into the apparently deadly dull manuscript—and to do so in a month.

The Ghost almost literally steps into the shoes of his late predecessor at Lang’s isolated and carefully guarded Martha’s Vineyard beach house—an uninviting gray structure of sterile modern design. The inhabitants are scarcely more inviting, consisting of Lang’s seemingly neglected wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams); Lang’s assistant and obvious mistress, Amelia (Kim Cattrall); some taciturn servants; and Lang himself. Lang invariably addresses the Ghost as “man” (explained to him later as what Lang always does when he can’t remember someone’s name), undermining any identity McGregor’s character might have.

In an attempt to distance himself from his subject—and, as it turns out, retain some identity—the Ghost doesn’t stay at the house, but rents a room at a local inn where the desk clerk (played by Polanski’s daughter, Morgane) absurdly dresses in colonial-era costume. This arrangement, however, proves untenable when the news breaks that Lang is being charged with war crimes, turning the off-season inn into a media circus and cramming the area with protestors. As a result, the Ghost finds himself lodging at the beach house—in his predecessor’s old room, which hasn’t even been divested of the previous occupant’s clothes and effects.

In an attempt to claim the room as his own—or at least to keep his own identity from blurring into that of the first ghost writer—the Ghost starts emptying the place, and in the process finds a concealed packet of photographs and papers with notes and a phone number. The dates on the photographs and documents don’t match the stories in Lang’s book, and the Ghost becomes curious about what’s really going on, setting out to learn the truth for himself. In so doing, he takes the first step in turning into his predecessor—a process he fights even while it consumes him and determines his fate. The distance between this and Polanski’s character Trelkovsky in The Tenant is not great, with the packet of information and pictures standing in for the Egyptian postcard that helps fuel Trelkovsky’s fantasies. (The Ghost throwing away a pair of bedroom slippers belonging to the first writer may well be a reference to a parallel in The Tenant where it is suggested Trelkovsky emulate the previous tenant by wearing slippers after 10 p.m. to lessen the noise.)

The Ghost’s efforts at retaining his own identity come to naught. He finds himself not only driving the dead writer’s car, but following the driving directions programmed into its GPS—directions that lead him too close to the truth and very nearly result in him suffering a similar fate on the ferry. The labyrinthian plot unfolds with the expert precision of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing and how to do it at every turn. Polanski doles out just as much information as necessary, which leads to that rarest of things: a surprise that actually is a surprise, yet one where all the pieces were there all along. The film is personal and yet works on a broader sense, as well, since Lang is fairly obviously modeled on real-life prime minister Tony Blair. The movie poses the question (and provides a fictional answer) of just why Blair always fell in line with whatever the U.S. government wanted.

Polanski’s film is nothing short of a masterpiece by a filmmaker who has returned to the top of his game. For anyone who cares about cinema—and especially for admirers of Polanski—The Ghost Writer belongs at the very top of the must-see list. Rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

18 thoughts on “The Ghost Writer

  1. Steven

    First off, I have to say this is an excellent review. My feelings are pretty much the same. I actually think this may be better than [i]Chinatown[/i].

    Anyways, I wanted to talk to you about the ending (the very end). Obviously, there will be SPOILERS AHEAD.

    After I had seen the ending, I was under the impression that a hit was put out on him. I mean, it made sense – then I read a few write-ups of the film, and some have said that The Ghost [i]wanted[/i] to die, which is why he handed the note to Ruth in the first place. I didn’t find this belief to be, well, logical. It doesn’t seem like something the character would have done. We are never given a reason to believe he doesn’t want to live. Of course, I’ve only see a few people toss this out. I just wanted to get your input on the ending. Do you think he knew he was going to die?

  2. Dread P. Roberts

    Horrah! After initially seeing the trailer, and reading some older reiews, I had my suspicions that this might be a grand return to form for Polanski – and that you, Hanke, would more than likely admire it. Now that it’s official (and available) I must get to the Fine Arts posthaste!

  3. Ken Hanke

    I actually think this may be better than Chinatown

    I actually think I might agree with that, though I have no illusions that it will ever attain that film’s popularity or legend.

    And in the realm of SPOILERS:

    Of course, I’ve only see a few people toss this out. I just wanted to get your input on the ending.

    I think it’s pretty much pure nonsense, and I say that about very few readings. I think it is inevitable, but I don’t think it was intentional or that he realized it. Now, whether it was done deliberately, I tend to think so, but that may only be a barometer of my paranoia.

    As for the Chinatown thing…am I the only one who finds the way Lang goes from hated potential war criminal to national hero something that nicely dovetails with John Huston’s comments that “whores, ugly buildings and politicians become respectable if they’re around long enough”?

  4. Ken Hanke

    I had my suspicions that this might be a grand return to form for Polanski – and that you, Hanke, would more than likely admire it.

    And bear in mind that I really do like Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate. (I more admire The Pianist than like it.)

    Now that it’s official (and available) I must get to the Fine Arts posthaste!

    I would encourage all possible speed since this will be divided up in three theaters come Friday, which will almost certainly kill it in a week.

  5. Andrew

    The movie’s a superb political thriller, but I was also surprised at how funny I found it. For instance, thought Tom Wilkinson’s performance was brilliant – both scary and hilariously satirical at the same time.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I was also surprised at how funny I found it. For instance, thought Tom Wilkinson’s performance was brilliant – both scary and hilariously satirical at the same time.

    True enough, but I think Robert Pugh as Rycroft had the funniest line in the film — the one about kittens (I will say no more).

  7. Still laughing about the “kitten” remark, a day after seeing the film.

    The house was a vivid symbol of the little wife.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Still laughing about the “kitten” remark, a day after seeing the film

    It’s a pretty terrific line.

  9. Eamon Martin

    Finally got to see this and boy was I satisfied.

    Being the fan of political intrigue that I am, I felt compelled to comment about this film and this place seemed like an appropriate spot to do so.

    Only moments after I left the theater tonight, I encountered a friend who had already seen the film and absolutely hated it. For her, the film failed based on its merits as a suspense film and from her point of view, it didn’t measure up to Polanski’s previous work –in short, how it mechanically worked/flowed as a movie.

    For an instant, this threw a wet blanket on my elation that here was a picture that had done more in my recent memory to illustrate very real relationships of power steering the course of our collective political history since…since..I dunno –The Good Shepherd? Three Days Of The Condor?

    At this point I have to say I’m no conspiracy buff. Nevertheless, aside from the final (and predictable) piece of the jigsaw puzzle revealed at the end, for anyone who has been following what’s been going on in the UK the past several months with the Chilcott Inquiry, the prescience and immediacy of the subject matter lays bare what Polanski’s intentions in creating this movie probably were. And for some who care about these things (like me), this is nothing less than a rare cinematic political victory. It is not just a political thriller but a film with a conscience and a very meaningful –and timely– motive.

    In the past few months, former British prime minister Tony Blair and his cabinet were dragged in front of an official state inquiry into what they knew, when they knew it and what happened between Blair and George w. Bush to launch the Iraq war, and –AND (here’s the important part) was Blair potentially a war criminal because of the actions he took on behalf of the US? This was BIG NEWS with extreme implications about how the Bush administration itself lied and manipulated people into war. Smoking gun stuff, really. Imagine, Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney being made to stand before a grand jury here and stand to account in this fashion. It’s about the same.

    But then it dawned on me when I saw my friend –with a resounding, sickening thud. She could only relate to The Ghost Writer merely in terms of its entertainment value as a political thriller.

    Why? WHY?

    Because yes, it was ripped right from the front of today’s headlines –in the UK and elsewhere, but not here! My friend had no frame of reference because tragically these important hearings have not been given the explosive treatment they really should have in this country.

    I’d be curious to hear about what viewers in other parts of the world felt about The Ghost Writer.

  10. Justin

    I was very impressed by the mood (a slightly alien atmosphere creating suspense) and the pace of the film. But I have to say that my overall impression what that the film was (surprisingly for a great artist like Polanski) let down by various rough edges, which should not be present in a truly polished thriller.

    The plot became thin (and rather cliched) when the ghost learns a key element about his predecessor’s death when he just happens to bump into an old man because of sheltering from the rain. No attempts seemed to have been made to stop photographs, which are pivotal to the story, looking doctored (or was that intentional?). The notion of Reichardt being just around the corner to meet up with the ghost stretches one’s suspension of disbelief, as does the idea that Emmett is close at hand. The news reports were unconvincing. The obvious references to Blair felt rather forced. The ending is, sadly, laughable.

    Overall, I was disappointed.

  11. Alina

    Thanks for the review! I don’t think I would have enjoyed the film half as much if I hadn’t been primed by your eulogies. Actually, I might’ve found the pacing slow and might not have made the connection to Tony Blair.

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the music? It was hilarious, a sort of fusion of the soundtrack to “Clue” and Philip Glass. It made the dry-humour of the script that much more funny. That is, when it was played. There were also all those gorgeous shots of the grey rainy beach where they only had the rain and the wind.

    I wasn’t convinced by Kim Cattrall, but maybe I’m just distracted by Samantha. And I loved Olivia Williams, but wasn’t surprised by your surprise. Like Justin, I think some of the plot was improbable (I thought Reinhardt was in the UK?) but overall, really enjoyable. And I really liked the stagey-feel of all the fixed-camera scenes.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the music?

    One of the problems with relatively short reviews is that you end up having to pick your focus and other things fall by the wayside in the process.

    I think some of the plot was improbable (I thought Reinhardt was in the UK?) but overall, really enjoyable

    Well, these days it doesn’t take very long to move from one place to the other if you have money and resources, though I grant you his 212 area code phone number is a puzzler.

    I really liked the stagey-feel of all the fixed-camera scenes.

    Astonishing what you can do with a tripod.

  13. travis

    I loved this movie. It was near filmmaking perfection. I say “near” because I thought the casting of Kim Catral was horrible due to her ever changing accent.

  14. janet

    This is the Polanski who was convicted years ago for rape of a 13 year old in Cal. and fled to Europe! Why are you all supporting his legal expenses by going to this movie? FEMALES: At least support your own gender by refusing to go to this.

  15. Dread P. Roberts

    This is the Polanski who was convicted years ago for rape of a 13 year old in Cal. and fled to Europe! Why are you all supporting his legal expenses by going to this movie? FEMALES: At least support your own gender by refusing to go to this.

    Really? This is THAT Polanski? Wow! Here I was thinking it was the OTHER one.

    This day just keeps getting worse. First, I thought I’d crawl out of the oblivious ignorant moron hole that I’ve been living in for the past 20 years, to go see a new Polanski movie. Then, I find out that I’ve actually shown up three months late – and wouldn’t yah’ know it – the darned thing isn’t even playing here anymore. So now I go to read a review, and I find out about this amazing tidbit of information. What are the odds? God bless you, Janet.

  16. kjh.childers

    Ken ….
    Finally had a chance to give this a go …
    kept me in my seat and eyes wide open to the finale …. with manuscript papers tossed about by the wind and down the street.

    The question remains – did Mr. Lang really meet his end here?

  17. I was underwhelmed by this, which is a damn shame, as I was really hoping to love it. The cast was stellar (especially Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson), Polanski’s in top form, but the script really undercut the film. Aside from the plot being generic and predictable, it had some dialogue that was either lifted wholesale from the book (which I haven’t read) and didn’t translate to speech well or was just amateurish in it’s exposition. That whole conversation with Eli Wallach was like something out of a TV movie.
    On the other hand, Brosnan keeps impressing more and more with each film.

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