Ghost Writer nails the zeitgeist

For the resident of a glass house, Roman Polanski is remarkably unafraid to throw stones. His latest, The Ghost Writer, isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it is one of the most timely political thrillers in recent memory, taking on the war on terror in general and former British prime minister Tony Blair in particular with only the flimsiest veiling.

Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed “ghost,” hired to help former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) rewrite his exceedingly dull memoir from his temporary home on the American East Coast. Ill omens abound, and McGregor becomes increasingly suspicious about his predecessor’s drowning death, especially once Lang is called out by the World Court at The Hague for his alleged involvement in war crimes. The parallels between Lang and Tony Blair are obvious, from the accusations of toadying to the Americans to the bitter nickname plastered on protestors’ placards: “Liar.”

As clear as the film’s politics are, though, Polanski doesn’t let The Ghost Writer become a polemic. Maybe that’s because Blair isn’t the only figure with echoes of Lang; the fictional politician is forced to choose between a life exiled in America, one of the few countries that doesn’t recognize The Hague, or surefire imprisonment if he returns home. The director’s empathy comes through in the stark loneliness of the film’s characters and locations; it isn’t uncommon to see movies about the isolation that comes with privilege, but few directors can understand that the way Polanski can.

Brosnan’s performance as Lang is wonderfully realized, too, making the most of every moment of screen time. He’s a complete cad one moment, apologetic the next, and Brosnan makes every mood understandable. McGregor’s ghost is much more understated, which is appropriate: His character is a cipher, making his living by telling the stories of other, stronger, more interesting people. It’s only natural for the ghost to pale next to Brosnan and an impeccable Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife, Ruth.

It’s a shame not all the casting is as strong. The film’s opening minutes feature a might-as-well-be-cigar-chewing Jim Belushi and an excessively stiff performance from Kim Cattrall as Lang’s assistant (and, presumably, mistress), which would be enough to put any moviegoer on edge. But Polanski’s deliberate pacing, which forgos the usual cheap thrills in favour of meticulously built tension and elegant storytelling, is enough to bring those viewers back into the fold. The Ghost Writer is a modern story told in a decidedly classic style, and it perfectly captures the spirit of both eras.

(Originally at ffwdweekly.com)

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