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Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Robert Harris (screenplay), Roman Polanski (screenplay)
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall
It’s not easy to find a political thriller that isn’t either so layered in dense language and context that it’s impossible to follow or so filled with exposition it becomes unwatchable, but occasionally one comes along that is entirely accessible and still challenging. The Ghost Writer is one such film, a masterpiece of suspense and direction, and one rich with rewards for those paying attention.
It begins with a deserted SUV on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard followed by a body washing ashore in place where a body should not do so. He is Mike McAra, an aide and writer for Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British Prime Minister who has a home on the island. While questions circulate about the cause–suicide or homicide–Lang’s publisher desperately needs a new ghost writer for his memoirs. Selected for the job is a writer who has no political writing background but is known for capturing the humanity of the subject. The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) heads to Martha’s Vineyard and is escorted to the secluded fortress-like home of Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and his few assistants, including Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). Without words being said, we know Lang is a troubled man, he is having or has had an affair with Amelia, and Ruth knows it. It’s uncomfortable right from the start, but it only get more strange as the days go by as Lang is accused of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA who it is implied, conducts torture on them to gain information. Lang faces possible war crime charges. All the while, The Ghost begins to suspect things are not what they seem.
Directed by Roman Polanski, and adapted from the Robert Harris novel of the same name, Ghost Writer is a taunt thriller but not one built on action. This is about discovery and dialog, listening and observing. Tension doesn’t come from fearing our hero will be caught, but rather suspecting there is no one he can trust. Polanski is no novice when it comes to this genre and here crafts a uniquely suspenseful story that draws from the classic Hitchcockian formula while maintaining the qualities that have come to define his own films. Long stretches of silence punctuated by short but electric exchanges between intelligent characters generate powerful moments throughout. Both McGregor and Brosnan are well-cast in the leads, and Williams and Cattrall are excellent as women manipulated by the man they are involved with, but much, much more. Polanski cares deeply for this characters and gives them great breadth to develop. This is especially true for McGregor, whose unnamed Ghost is a pawn in a game but one brilliant enough to know what moves are coming. Mostly. Watch McGregor use his body and expressive face to carry several telling moments, not relying on voice for exposition. His transformation from inspired writer to paranoid hunter is spellbinding.
It is Polanski’s vivid direction, with cinematography by Pawel Edelman that creates the film’s most effective and memorizing aspects however, soaking the wide angle shots with misty gray rains and cold, achingly beautiful shots of the seashore. A bike ride along a narrow road in a sudden chill shower is breathtaking for is imagery but also beautifully descriptive of the character pushing through the weather.
While there are many well-staged and executed moments, there are two that really shine, including a discovery in McAra’s bedroom as his effects are being gathered, and a remarkably powerful scene between The Ghost and a professor named Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) at the educator’s isolated home. Here is a man of particular discernments and clearly a shadow of something much larger that The Ghost is only just realizing he is walking blindly into. It’s a fascinating and electric moment that is so well-written it nearly eclipses the whole of the film.
To say more would only spoil what should be learned on your own. The Ghost Writer is not made to be easily digestible, rather you will consider it for a long time after. The closing reveals are in fact surprising, and the final frame, which is sublimely shot, is a genuine moment of committed storytelling that it fuels both rage and confusion. How often does that happen? Polanski moves us to think and we can’t help but comply.
Stay turned for Day 2 of Ewan McGregor.