Monday, March 1, 2010
The Ghost Writer is Roman Polanski's slick new political thriller, although it's a bit too slick for its own good. It has a premise and feel to it that is rightfully intriguing and, to the film's credit, it answers all of our questions by the end, but it is told in such a cold and distant way that the characters simply seem like Polanski's puppets rather than actual human beings. Sympathy towards the film's main characters is virtually nonexistent, and the two-hour-plus running time doesn't help its cause either.
The film is an adaptation of Robert Harris' 2007 political novel , who also penned the script along with Polanski. It centers on a character known only as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) as he accepts an offer to re-write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang's former ghostwriter died in a mysterious drowning, and McGregor's character isn't all too excited about jumping into this seemingly unsafe operation. It is Lang's $250,000 offer than convinces The Ghost to tackle the difficult task of creating a cohesive autobiography out of Lang's muddled writings in under one month.
As McGregor's character begins his work on the book, Lang is accused of war crimes, namely the kidnapping and torture of suspected terrorists. It's safe to say that this sours the mood at Lang's beautiful beach front retreat. His already hostile wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) becomes even more agitated, although it's more because of Lang's promiscuous behavior with his assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall). The entire household has a cold, eerie feel to it, and The Ghost can feel it the second he walks through the door. He does his best to set up camp at a nearby motel, but before he knows it, dozens of news caravans force him to stay at the Lang estate. To make things even creepier, Amelia puts him up in his predecessor's cabin, in which his belongings have yet to be cleared out.
Like any man would, The Ghost takes an interest in the troublesome death of Lang's former ghost, and what he learns leads him to some interesting places. He has a meeting with Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), an old friend of Lang's, and even though Emmett is mentioned in the man's memoirs, he denies any notion of keeping in contact with him after their Cambridge days. The Ghost also has an interesting interaction with an old resident of the island (Eli Wallach), who has some interesting theories about that cryptic drowning. It is these scenes, particularly the latter which is set during a brutal rainstorm, which embody the effectiveness of this film. They answer some of the questions, but not all, and they keep you itching to unravel the mystery.
As a savvy political puzzle, The Ghost Writer is first-rate storytelling. All of the twists and turns are surprising enough, and the whole thing makes a great deal of sense after you think about it for a while. It is the film's lack of a strong emotional punch that weighs it down. The players involved are disappointing caricatures, although I'm not sure it's the fault of the performers. McGregor does a fine job conveying his sense of panic, and it is an outright pleasure to see the talented Brosnan in a role of some significance once again (he made a terrific Bond in my book). Even Olivia Williams, who I wanted to see a lot more of in An Education, turns in a quality performance. It's simply Polanski's directorial style that makes these characters meaningless.
There's a necessary component to making a successful thriller, and it is the one thing The Ghost Writer lacks that Shutter Island doesn't. There needs to be some shred of sympathy for the main players for all of this clever, well thought out action to become relevant, and this film doesn't have it. Polanski basically shoots the film like a political news reporter, zipping from one scene to the next in a chase to uncover the truth. He fails to get inside the emotions of these characters and figure out what really drives them. In the end, it's not enough to simply tell us who is behind the conspiracy and why; we need to know how they feel about it as well.