Review: The Ghost Writer
The release of Roman Polanski’s latest film has been muted, overshadowed by the ongoing legal problems of the erstwhile filmmaker. And that’s a shame, because Polanski has crafted an elite throwback thriller in the tradition of the genre’s incredible run during the 1970s, when Polanski made his untouchable masterpiece Chinatown. While The Ghost Writer is not quite of that pedigree, it is one of the finest films the genre has seen in years, employing elements of mood, subtle paranoia, and intelligent suspense that seem to be lost hallmarks in modern thrillers.
The film works as well as it does thanks to the incredible work done by Ewan McGregor. As a quizzical ghost writer hired to finish the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister embroiled in a war crimes scandal (after his predecessor washes up dead), McGregor is given almost nothing to work with in terms of back story or character network. We don’t know his history outside of a couple prior writing projects, and he doesn’t have any close personal connections to let us know more about him than is seen on his face. The performance is entirely dependent on McGregor’s ability to craft the character on the fly. He believably works as the viewer’s curious eye, wading into a murky world of suspicious rules and nervous glances.
He’s aided by some very impressive work by the mature and elegant supporting cast. Pierce Brosnan has never been better as he plays the besieged former Prime Minister (clearly a stand-in for Tony Blair). He proves yet again that while the Bond films may have been great for his notoriety and his pocketbook, they undercut his reputation as a truly fine actor, and he does a fine job portraying a groomed and arrogant character that while he seems to be the behind the dark goings ok, you can’t help but kind of like. Olivia Williams also turns great work as the Prime Minister’s wife and confidant, levying more power with a single word or a cold stare than any bullet could muster.
But the real star here is behind the camera. With an infrequent and spotty track record over the last couple decades, it’s great to see Roman Polanski return to superb potboiler form. Much like Scorcese did this year with Shutter Island, Polanski uses the paranoid thriller genre that he mastered so many years ago as a sandbox in which to play with cinematic tricks of the trade. There’s the fog-covered Massachusetts island where the writer goes to work, the cold and menacing beach house filled with odd angles and ample spots to listen around corners, and the nervous help staff that all seem like they know something they shouldn’t. But while those tropes have all been seen before, in the hands of a master they become invisible devices that lead the viewer along a tense and frightening journey of discovery. Though the scenario is modern, dealing with issues like prisoner torture and a slave/master relationship between Britain and the U.S., this film would fit conformably in the 1970s with genre highpoints like The Conversation and The Parallax View. It derives its suspense from atmosphere and subtle character interaction, and in that manner it’s a welcome return to principle from lesser modern entries filled with cheap jolts and frantic editing.
The film does suffer somewhat from moments of unclear consequence and, despite the great work by McGregor, the feeling that the protagonist isn’t quite relatable, his curious actions unjustified in a shady world so blatantly uneasy and hostile. As the tension increases and the stakes are raised, the film can feel cold and mechanical, which would be more distracting if those machinations weren’t so expertly constructed.
Much like Shutter Island, this is a filmmaker’s film, a chance to watch a proven auteur play with all the toys he’s picked up over a lifetime of making movies. And in that sense, it’s nothing short of masterful. Polanski has some major personal problems to confront these days, not to mention that at 76 he’s getting up there in age. But The Ghost Writer suggests an artist still at the top of his game. The Roman Polanski of Chinatown and The Tenants is back…possibly for the last time.