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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The Ghost Writer

While I try not to let a filmmaker’s personal life interfere with my enjoyment of their work, I must admit that I didn’t exactly feel a burning desire to rush out and see the latest Roman Polanski film, 2010’s The Ghost Writer. However, while Mr. Polanski’s somewhat sordid past did give me pause, I must of course acknowledge his tremendous skills as a filmmaker.  So, in that respect, his involvement in The Ghost Writer also piqued my interest in the film.  I wondered what sort of spin Mr. Polanski had brought to a story that looked, on the surface, like a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller.  This push-pull on my interest resulted in my passing on the film in theatres, but adding it to my Netflix queue once it came out on DVD.

(And that, my friends, is a little extra free-of-charge insight into how my brain works!)

In the film, Ewan McGregor plays the titular ghost writer.  (Interestingly enough, his character’s actual name is never given.)  He’s a professional author, hired to help famous people complete their memoirs/autobiographies/etc.  The ghost writer’s services are called into play, at the start of the film, to help beleaguered British politician Adam Lang.  Mr. Lang, once the British Prime Minister, is now under fire for allegedly allowing suspected terrorists to be tortured while he was the PM.  That, plus the untimely death of his last ghost writer, has put a wrinkle in the progress of his upcoming book.  With the political scandal reaching fever pitch, the book’s publisher is desperate to get the book completed and on the shelves in great haste, and so Ewan McGregor’s character is dispatched to the Lang compound to begin work immediately.

Except, no surprise, things quickly become very complicated for the ghost.  He finds himself faced with Mr. Lang, a politician under siege, who seems extraordinarily affable at times and yet reluctant to open up about himself or his past; Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems sympathetic but also extremely tightly-wound; and a growing mystery about Adam Lang’s past and what may or may not have happened to his ghost writer predecessor.

Pierce Brosnan was widely-praised for his performance as Adam Lang, and rightly so.  He brings all the charisma and bluster of a great politician to the fore, while also hinting at a dangerous edge that just might lie right below the surface.  He constantly keeps the audience guessing as to whether he’s a noble politician beset by pernicious enemies, or whether Adam Lang is in fact a much more sinister character.  Speaking of keeping the audience guessing, so too does the wonderful Olivia Williams (Dollhouse, Rushmore) as his wife Ruth.  She is wonderfully creepy in her interactions with Ewan McGregor’s character, and here too the audience is kept guessing as to whether she’s just a lonely woman desperate for some comfort and attention, or if Ruth is really Lady Macbeth.

Ewan McGregor himself is a perfectly endearing every-man, though he gets much less to do than Mr. Brosnan or Ms. Williams.  Because his character is kept pretty much a nameless cipher for much of the film, it’s tough to connect with or invest in his character.  As an audience, we’re curious about the same things that he is curious about, but there’s not really anything to his character for us to grab hold of.  On the other hand, I was quite pleasantly surprised by how much fun Kim Cattrall has as Adam Lang’s somewhat persnickety right-hand woman, Amelia.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of her tense relationship with Ruth, and we’re given just enough information to construct our own elaborate suppositions as to what might have gone on between those two women in the past.

Roman Polanski’s skills truly do elevate the material.  The movie looks absolutely gorgeous.  Mr. Polanski has a sharp eye for angles and composition, and I found myself quite dazzled by the images on screen.  There are some beautifully haunting images, and the whole film has a wonderfully dark, creepy vibe that I found quite compelling.  The script is tautly paced, and the film is well-edited so that the story zips along at a rapid clip.

All of this might almost convince you that the film is something more important or interesting than it really is.  When you strip away all of the style, there’s not that much of substance to The Ghost Writer.  The film is as unfinished and loosely sketched as the title character.  I don’t think that the mysteries resolved themselves in much of a satisfactory way, and the film totally lost me in its terrible last couple of minutes.  There’s a pretty absurd surprise revelation that I just found silly (is that REALLY the way you would hide an important secret about a famous individual??), and the final shot of the film seemed like a blatant “up yours” to the audience.  (It reminded me of the ending of the otherwise great film Layer Cake, which I loved for 95% of its runtime until an ending that, I felt, totally yanked the rug out from under the audience in a very unpleasant way.)  I suppose the intention behind the final scene of The Ghost Writer was to end the film on a haunting, tragic note, but to me it just seemed as if the filmmakers were pulling away any small bit of connection we might have had to the main character.  Did you care at all about this person?  Well screw that.  Urg, what a let-down.

The Ghost Writer is without question an extraordinarily well-made film.  I certainly enjoyed watching it (until the ending, that is).  I guess I just wish that Mr. Polanski had applied his skills to a film with a bit more substance.

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