REVIEW: The Ghost Writer [2010]

“It’s in the beginnings”

I remember being so perplexed during the 2008 Oscars because Michael Clayton was up for Best Picture of 2007. To me it was a solid thriller and just didn’t seem to deserve the vaunted status or the company it was keeping. That all changed minutes after the completion of Roman Polanski’s newest The Ghost Writer, however. Through the entire thing I kept recalling how taut Tony Gilroy’s movie was—lean, mean, and edge of your seat thrills in the dangerous world of political intrigue. With all the praise and acclaim being thrown at Polanski’s return to mystery thriller, following the short hiatus of Holocaust drama and Dickens, the thought of it only being very good cannot escape me. The acting is top notch, the story is fascinating and effective in its twists and turns, and some of the visuals are gorgeous—I’d say the final sequence is some of the best cinema in quite some time. Did it have to be over two hours long, though? Shave maybe twenty minutes off, while reworking the pacing, and those moments meant to be tense and exhilarating during the first two-thirds wouldn’t feel so unnecessarily bloated.

Right from the start the action carries on at a good clip. Former Prime Minister Adam Lang has just seen his friend and ghostwriter’s body wash up along the shore of the Massachusetts island where he’s been staying. Desperate to find a replacement that can churn the memoir out quick, the publishers hire Ewan McGregor’s nameless author, someone whose work Lang’s wife has appreciated. You can begin to assume that his predecessor met with an untimely death, especially just as the British government calls out Lang as a war criminal back home, so the fact the new writer is mugged on his departure from earning the job is not surprising. Off he goes to America to meet with his client, finding that the first draft is under lock and key, the location secluded, and the security intrusive. After falling asleep while reading the book, McGregor decides to infuse a little more personality to the tale, doing his best to catch moments of authenticity from the man, only to soon find discrepancies in the story as well as a hidden history to the reasons why this young college actor, without any political aspirations, would want to throw his hat into the ring.

There is a lot going on, so I can understand why Polanski and company chose to extend the runtime and hope that the mystery unraveled in due course. Something is happening between Lang and his publicist/secretary, causing tension with the two and his wife Ruth; the PM’s former friend and minister in Britain, fired some time earlier, has been the one cooperating with the press and exposing Lang’s dealings with suspected terrorists and their extraction to be waterboarded by the Americans; and the new discoveries surrounding the original memoir author’s demise begin to shed a more dangerous light on the proceedings with each step forward. Perhaps the middle third was meant to lull us into a sense of comfort, readying the audience for the breakneck speed in which the secrets start to be illuminated at the end—although even that seems to be off ever so slightly in its pacing. Either way, the extended time it takes to finally force McGregor to go off the reservation for answers keeps you at an arm’s length, always showing how you are watching a story unfold instead of actively being a part of it. And then there are the odd moments of sexual tension between Ruth and Ewan, culminating with a night that I truly can’t come up with any reason for its need to be included.

The story does have a riveting mystery at its center, though, so I must give credit to author Robert Harris and his source material. Answers are slowly revealed through the deliberate peeling back of layers, uncovering assumptions that seem plausible, but may only be a new surface hiding something even more conspiratorial and surprising beneath. An impressive cast helps keep things under wraps until the plot itself necessitates the discoveries; every revelation timed to give just enough information until the next one. McGregor portrays the sensitive intellect well; a man detached from any emotional bonds so that he can craft an entertaining work in the voice of whoever he is pretending to be. His journalistic curiosity leads him to truths he would probably be best to ignore, but his desire to live by finding out what his predecessor did to get killed is stronger. Tom Wilkinson does what he does best as the duplicitous aristocrat standing on the periphery; James Belushi comes out of exile for a fun role as the rough, bottom-line book publisher; and Olivia Williams knocks out the part of the once crucial wife and partner currently relegated to a position by his side solely for the media’s gaze. If there is one fault it is Kim Cattrall. She isn’t bad; I just don’t know why they didn’t cast a real Brit.

But it is Pierce Brosnan that really nails his role of Adam Lang. The full package is on display, from retired politico doing what he can to the kind and approachable subject for McGregor’s research to the hot-tempered fall guy for an incident he vehemently stands behind, but which we know more is involved than what has been told. He overshadows all, rendering even Ewan into an unsure boy, second-guessing all the truths he believes he’s uncovered by Brosnan’s charismatic laugh of reply towards accusations. The film revolves around the character of Lang and how his unknown rise to power occurred, not McGregor’s search for answers. The titular ghostwriter is just out entry point into the intrigue, a vessel for us to relate as the secrets become clear. It is he that we follow through the desolate landscapes and abandoned streets—a starkly quiet visual frame used throughout that allows us to feel a need to turn around and see if we are being followed. Flourishes abound to constantly jolt you out of the malaise caused by the pacing, successfully using tension, such as in a scene of a note being passed through a gathering just as it would through members of Parliament. We know what’s in the note and whom it is for; it’s the reaction that we so yearn for. And with a final scene so wonderfully orchestrated in that ‘less is more’ canon, I can only wish more of what came before heeded those words as well.

The Ghost Writer 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] EWAN McGREGOR stars in THE GHOST WRITER Photo: Guy Farrandis © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (L to R) KIM CATTRALL, OLIVIA WILLIAMS and PIERCE BROSNAN star in THE GHOST WRITER. Photo: Guy Ferrandis © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.


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