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 Writer. Both, 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