' Cinema Romantico: The Ghost Writer

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Ghost Writer

I subscribe to the notion that thrillers should be streamlined, lean, mean, without so-called pomp and circumstance, and that any and all red herrings should be smoked and brined and left the heck out. Get going and keep going and avoid unnecessary detours. You can allow for backstory in certain characters but this should be revealed as the story progresses and in small increments. Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" is thriller of this sort.

As it opens Ewan McGregor's Ghost Writer of the title (I did not realize it until the closing credits but he is never given a name) is being courted to finish the juicy memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) as the original ghost writer has died in the opening scenes of an apparent suicide. McGregor's Ghost gets the job and lights out for Lang's spectacular cinematic beachfront home where Lang's dutiful assistant - might she be more? - Laura (Kim Cattrall) explains the memoirs' manuscript is locked in a secure vault and never to leave the premises. There are brief sequences of the Ghost posing questions to the ex Prime Minister who is always at the ready with a well-rehearsed made-up story meant to explain motivations but more important is the creepy, unstable vibe the audience senses from the get-go. Consider the house's resident cook, a woman with very few lines but who always seems to have a look that suggests she just saw something sinister and is now scared someone will ask her about it.

We meet Lang's wife, Ruth (a tremendous Olivia Williams, vibing on Lady Macbeth), smart, beautiful, in a very wintery Cape Cod kinda way, and seemingly ever-irritated after a lifetime of playing a supporting role to a politician. Certainly there are some not-so-subtle references to Tony Blair and plot developments involve Iraq and charges of Lang being a war criminal but thankfully Polanski (working from a novel by Robert Harris) never goes overboard in making these comparisons the film's focal point.

Instead the film progresses shockingly simply as various truths and untruths are uncovered by the Ghost. (The only sequence for which I did not care was a rather fortitous rainstorm leading the Ghost to a character who plants the initial seed of suspicion. My God, was that lazy. I think the seed could have planted in a much more organic way with minimal effort.) The film's revelations deserve to be discovered for themselves and so I will refrain from going into deep detail but the critical aspect of "The Ghost Writer" is its refusal to function as a coffee table covered with puzzle pieces for the audience to pour over like it's a parlor game (i.e. "Shutter Island"). "The Ghost Writer" unfolds elegantly and delicately. The audience makes it discoveries at the same rate as the main character. Nothing in this movie exists just to trick us. All it yearns to do is (you're sensing italics, aren't you?) tell the story.

And the end? Oh, the end. No, no, no, I'm not giving it away, but so often you watch movies these days and you see the shot that you know should be the last shot but you don't trust the filmmakers to know it should be the last shot and so inside your head you're screaming "This is the last shot! THIS IS THE LAST SHOT!" and then inevitably it's not the last shot and you leave depressed. But when I saw the last shot in "The Ghost Writer" I knew it was the last shot and I knew that Polanski knew it was the last shot and it was. Heavenly.

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