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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski’s political thriller

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Roman Polanski has been in the news lately. Sadly, most of the attention has been directed at his battle against extradition, not his latest movie, The Ghost Writer. The new film is proof that the director has lost none of his skill in visual storytelling. It’s a political thriller that, for once, is thrilling to watch.

Based on Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, the film concerns an unnamed British writer (sharp-tongued Ewan McGregor) hired to rewrite a troubled work in progress, the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (an unctuous Pierce Brosnan). Analogies to the real world are too obvious to overlook. Once the shining example of Cool Britannia, Lang has lost face; his obsequious behavior with a certain American president led to the invasion of Iraq and other policies unpopular in the United Kingdom and abroad. And like his apparent model, Tony Blair, Lang is a personable glad-hander, the youthful face of Britain’s Labour Party in the ’90s. In The Ghost Writer, the deposed politician is holed up on the remote estate of an American tycoon, the CEO of an evil corporation called Hatherton (Halliburton?), reminiscing over better days with a little editorial assistance. When Lang’s first ghostwriter turns up dead on the beach of the island estate, McGregor reluctantly becomes his replacement. His qualms are only eased in part by the huge fee.

“There’s something not quite right about this project,” says the stuffy English editor at the publishing giant behind the memoirs. More prophetic words were seldom spoken. The “Ghost” (as McGregor’s character calls himself) is mugged on his way home; the assailants grab only his manuscript case and speed away on a motorbike. When he finally arrives by plane and ferryboat at Lang’s heavily guarded seaside hideaway, he finds the work left by his predecessor under lock and key, the seemingly innocuous if self-serving narrative treated as a state secret. The mood on the wintry, wind-blasted island grows even colder when the International Criminal Court indicts Lang for ordering the kidnapping of British subjects of Pakistani descent and handing them to the CIA for waterboarding. Although protected by American officials, he is hounded by a former political colleague and faces arrest if he returns home.

The Ghost Writer comes from a template similar to Polanski’s 1999 thriller, The Ninth Gate. Both films are based on best-selling genre fiction and involve a mercenary in the world of books who finds himself on a journey into fear and darkness. Both are set in rarefied circles of wealth, intellect and influence, where hidden networks of power converge to dangerous effect. At the heart of The NinthGate is the deadly pursuit of a rare occult manuscript; in The Ghost Writer, Lang’s secretive memoirs are worth killing for. A droll but dark sense of humor crackles beneath both films. And there are always women of dubious loyalty, the position filled this time by Lang’s embittered wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams in a masterful performance).

Polanski hasn’t forgotten how to move a film forward with taut cinematic rhythms, vital visual clues and edge-of-the-seat suspense. The Ghost Writer runs more than two hours, yet the pace never slackens and the story is free of dead-end digressions. As the conspiracy unfolds, it also reveals an artist who was peevish about American politics even before the long arm of the Los Angeles district attorney found him in Switzerland.

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