A ghost story
Roman Polanski returns with well-scripted, well-played thriller
The title character in this new thriller directed by Roman Polanski is a ghost in several senses of the word. He’s ghost-writing the memoirs of an exiled politician and former prime minister of Great Britain, and that’s the initial setup for what becomes a fascinatingly convoluted thriller plot.
But as that plot unfolds, he also finds himself behaving like the ghost of the mysteriously deceased writer who preceded him on the memoir project. And eventually, as the suspenseful complications begin to multiply, you can’t help but feel that this unnamed scribe (played with wily craft by Ewan McGregor) is becoming a kind of ghost in his own story and life.
I mention all this at the outset as a way of suggesting that Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, for all of its current-events subtext (a Tony Blair-like figure, the CIA, torture and the war on terror, spin merchants, etc., not to mention Polanski’s own notoriety), is pre-eminently a character-based thriller and a genuinely haunting one at that. The reverberations from international politics in the Iraq War period add to the immediacy and impact of the film, but they’re not the main point. While the thriller plot may be what grabs you initially, it’s the unraveling of corruption and self-deception in a half-dozen or so smartly delineated characters that makes you glad you stayed to see it through.
The script by Polanski and Robert Harris, based on the latter’s novel, gets part of the credit for that, as do the performances by McGregor and several others in the cast (Olivia Williams, most especially). Plus, Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman confer a fiercely iconic gravity on McGregor, Pierce Brosnan (as the Blair-ish politico), Williams (as the politico’s shrewdly adventurous wife), and Kim Cattrall (as Brosnan’s amorous chief aide).
The wife is the most complex and intriguing character of the bunch, and Williams’ brilliantly mercurial performance guides us into the disquieting discovery that the lady is a ghostly presence of yet another kind in this darkly serpentine tale.
Brosnan manages an effective balance of charisma and shamelessness in a character whose considerable reservoir of bile can’t be entirely concealed.
McGregor submerges himself very nicely in a role that is part picaresque schlemiel (a Polanski trademark) and part derelict writer and trouble magnet, somewhat in the manner of Holly Martins (from The Third Man) and assorted literary pretenders in Hitchcock, Graham Greene, etc. It’s first-rate movie-acting of a kind so self-effacing that it has no chance of winning any awards, but the fleeting glimpses of the ghost writer’s capacity for self-delusion are devastating in their casual abandon.
Brit actor Tom Wilkinson affects a beguiling American drawl as a university prof overseeing a secluded little think-tank empire. Timothy Hutton and Jim Belushi have acidic cameos in the early going, and a magnificently aged Eli Wallach is genial, creepy and utterly convincing as a New England villager who strays into the action for a brief but pivotal moment.
Wallach’s moment and the oddly fatalistic gleam of McGregor’s eye when the writer yields to temptation are among the nuances that make this genre exercise into something exceptional. And the clincher on that count comes in the film’s final shot, a climactic moment both in the story and in the film’s astonishingly off-handed artistry.