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.