The Ghost Writer

A nameless writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to finish the autobiography of the shamed former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the first man on the job dies under mysterious circumstances in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ oh-so-timely political thriller.  Polanski uses the contemporary thriller to play on his classic theme of a man pretending to be an artist (or is it an artist pretending to be a man?) getting in way too deep and swept up into events much larger than himself.

What a treat it has been for cineastes this bitter February (normally the harshest of months for fans of the art form) as we’ve had new entries from filmdom’s greatest living masters, both putting their own stamp on the Hitchcockian thriller: Martin Scorsese’s bombastic and psychologically disturbing Shutter Island and Roman Polanski’s subtly handled political potboiler, The Ghost WriterBoth, in their own unique ways represent the echelon of entertainment.  To the pedestrian viewer, Polanski’s film might seem simply a polished and slick thinking-man’s thriller, but for those who look behind the curtain, it’s the controversial filmmaker’s cinematic f-you to America…and Britian.  Just as in Scorsese’s film, Polanski sees a cinematic beauty in filming loose papers blowing in the wind…papers detailing crimes some would kill to keep hidden.

But for the European auteur, it’s all about the subtlety.  While narratively the politics of Harris’ source material are laid bare for quick digestion, Polanski builds suspense with the most studied and classic of cinematic techniques.  Here we have the director opening and closing the film with seemingly innocuous scenes: a ferry pulling into dock in the twilight and a London street full of pedestrians and parked cars.  In the opening scene the viewer isn’t quite sure what just happened, but in the closing scene, the screws have been turned and the viewer has come to learn all too much.   All of this is scored at just the right tempo by one of the world’s greatest film composers, Alexandre Desplat.  His music slips in and under your skin at just the right moments while Polanski’s eye guides your attention to just the right detail. 

In between these expertly played scenes is a well paced detective-driven conspiracy thriller complete with Kim Cattrall as a stiff-lipped and all too personal assistant to the Prime Minister and Olivia Williams as the seemingly hardened but still broken-hearted wife.  Polanski assembles an eclectic supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson as a shady Harvard Professor, Timothy Hutton as the PM’s lawyer, and James Belushi as the publishing mogul looking to make a killing off the memoirs as a cataclysmic political scandal unfolds in the final hours.

Ultimately The Ghost Writer might come across as too timely for its own good.  Some of its political elements already seem somewhat dated and Polanski’s interest in how modern technology inhibits real human connection while making crimes easier to pull off might not carry any resonance in fifteen years when the technology in the film is no longer current.  The film may not represent any grand artistic statement (though its themes certainly play into Polanski’s tortured worldview), but for those seeking to be entertained by one of filmdom’s grand masters, you’ll be hard-pressed to find The Ghost Writer make one false move.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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10 comments on “The Ghost Writer

  1. What the hell…let’s do it. Here I invite others to rank Polanski’s films. Though I feel criminal for not having seen some of his essentials (The Tenant and Tess are in my Netflix queue and Knife in the Water has somehow avoided me all these years) and most will probably find me a heretic for not really caring for Repulsion (I was repulsed though I appreciated the attempt)…nevertheless, how can one not revel in ranking the works of this controversial master of the craft?

    The Pianist 10/10
    Chinatown 10/10
    Rosemary’s Baby 9.5/10
    The Tragedy of Macbeth 9/10 (disturbing as hell)
    The Ninth Gate 9/10 (hell as heaven)
    The Ghost Writer 8.5/10
    The Fearless Vampire Killers 8/10 (one of my faves from when I was a kid, and one of the best opening credit sequences ever)
    Oliver Twist 8/10 (a bit underrated methinks)
    Repulsion 7/10

    I would have to re-watch Pirates (which I saw as a kid and recall being disappointed) and Death and the Maiden (which I recall not liking for some reason) before giving them a fair judgment.

    • NOTE TO READERS:

      Since the original post I have had a chance to watch a few of Polanski’s films I had previously missed:

      The Tenant – I would give an 8/10 – disturbing as hell (even more so than Repulsion) and a really probing look into how Polanski views himself.

      Tess – I would give a 9/10 – like nothing Polanski has ever done. Beautifully photographed, scored, and costumed…though a bit overlong.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Excellent review David! It’s a mind-bender, but it’s mostly a riveting view. And as you note it’s a subtle work, but it’s one that does require discipline. OK let’s go:

    Knife in the Water 10/10
    Repulsion 9/10
    Macbeth 8.5/10
    Rosemary’s Baby 8.5/10
    The Pianist 8/10
    The Tenant 8/10
    The Ghost Writer 8/10
    Tess (7.5/10)
    Cul-de-Sac (7.5/10)
    Death and the Maiden (7.5/10)
    Fearless Vampire Killers (7/10)
    Oliver Twist (7/10)
    Chinatown (6/10)
    The Ninth Gate (6/10)

    Whoa, Sam! 6/10 for Chinatown??? Whoa. I don’t even know what to say about that. –DHS

  3. John Greco says:

    As for my own favorite Polanski films well, this is pretty much off the cuff. Some of these I have not seen in awhile, but here we go.

    Knife in the Water 10/10
    Chinatown 10/10
    Repulsion 9.5/10
    Rosemary’s Baby 9/10
    The Pianist 9/10
    The Tennant 8.5/10
    Macbeth 8.5/10
    Death and the Maiden 7.5/10
    Cul-de-Sac 7/10
    The Ninth Gate 7/10
    Bitter Moon 7/10
    Frantic 6/10
    The Fearless Vampire Killers 5/10
    What? 2/10

    I still have to see Tess, Pirates and Oliver Twist (which I have on DVD)

    John, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Oliver Twist after you watch it. I’ve been hard pressed to find any fans…but as a Polanski admirer you might find the way in which he handled the too-familiar material intriguing on some levels. –DHS

  4. John Greco says:

    Sorry, this was suppose to precede the listing.

    Yes, David, like you I am just about a big as Polanski fan as I am of Scorsese. I have been following these two since their (and my own) early days. This one has not opened in my neck of the woods yet. Strangely, the local newspaper seemed to hint that it was opening a couple of weeks ago and it never did. Coming attractions appear at the theater yet the paper now gives no hint of when it will open. Hopefully, it will be here soon.

    John, it seems to be doing decent business, I would imagine it’s getting a wider release soon. Polanski is definitely way up there for me, too, in terms of living-breathing-working legends…not quite as high as Scorsese as he seems to be more hit or miss, but there’s always “something” about his films that make them of high interest. –DHS

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    David, I have taken quite a bit of flack over the years for my indifference to CHINATOWN, including Allan’s strongest condemnation. Let’s just say that I am 100% that I am the problem here, not the film.

    Sam, ha ha ha. It’s good when you can recognize that. –DHS

  6. Jake Cole says:

    I finally managed to see The Ghost Writer (and noticed that it was weakly overdubbed for swearing) and absolutely loved it. It has such a unique faith in we the audience, assured that, even as it slams America for its backward ways, we can look at its beautiful and (naturally) ghostly imagery and take from it our own unease. Polanski barely prods anything, using only some suggestive lingering shots and vaguely threatening lines and deliveries and gets so much out of it. I do think that the last reveal was unnecessary, but at least Polanski set it up instead of just springing it, and he more than made up for it with the astonishing final shot. I’ll be surprised if many films eclipse this one in my mind this year.

    Jake, yes, I loved the subtlety of Polanski’s techniques. Few directors know how to utilize such skills these days. –DHS

  7. ccyager says:

    Hi, David,

    I finally saw this movie yesterday, curious to see how much about writing or ghost-writing was actually in it. From that perspective, it was a disappointment, although Ghost’s unfamiliarity with the milieu he landed in made for great suspense at times. I agree with everything you said about Polanski’s direction. He is a master at using color, I think, to create atmosphere. I mean, how much colder could that beach house have been? And of course, Polanski had to get in a reference to cats — the creepiest line I’ve ever heard was Polanski himself, while flaunting a knife in “Chinatown,” saying “Kitty, kitty, kitty.” I totally loved this movie as a political thriller, and the final reveal — that note, not McEwan’s examination of the manuscript — was unnecessary and took too long. I loved the final scene even as I knew what was coming….. Worth the ticket price!

    Cinda

    Cinda, it’s funny…I thought the film might end that way, but it was still a little jolting. But the subdued way in which Polanski handled the final shot and what he kept in frame and out of frame was what made it so memorable. –DHS

  8. DeeDee says:

    Bonjour! D.H.Schleicher…
    …I must admit that I have not watched too many of director Roman Polanski’s films, but of the few films of his that I have watched…
    I will rank them accordingly…

    Chinatown 10/10…A Tour de Force (The film that may have set the “(G)”old Standard”…as film noir “transitioned” from film noir to neo-noir.)
    Repulsion 10/10…Chilling
    Rosemary’s Baby 10/10…Equally, Chilling

    Films That Will Make There Way into My Amazon.com Cart…Unfortunately, some of his titles “escaped” me…In other words, I’am not familiar with them…I wonder if he(Polanski)have a box set(s) yet, In order to have his works(oeuvre) contained in one singular unit or units?

    Bitter Moon
    Cul-de-Sac
    Death and the Maiden
    The Fearless Vampire Killers
    Frantic (Odd I own Frantic, but I have not watched it yet, with yet being the operative word.)
    The Ghost Writer(A fellow blogger (Well, she is not actually a blogger, but a commenter on a message board) love this film… Therefore, I must seek it out on her review or recommendation along.)
    Knife in the Water
    The Ninth Gate
    Oliver Twist
    The Pianist
    The Tennant
    Tess
    The Tragedy of Macbeth
    What?

    Merci, for sharing!
    DeeDee ;-D
    [Postscript: I must admit that I read your review when you first posted, but I feel that I did not have anything to add to the conversation at that time.]

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