Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Movie Review: The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Director - Roman Polanski
Writer - Robert Harris (novel); Robert Harris (adaptation)
128 min; PG-13
The Ghost - Ewan McGregor
Adam Lang - Pierce Brosnan
Ruth Lang - Olivia Williams
Amelia Bly - Kim Cattrall
Paul Emmett - Tom Wilkinson

Not since I reviewed Slumdog Millionaire (2008) have I been so conflicted on what I actually want to write about a film. To be clear, I’m not directly comparing that film to Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) in terms of content, but more-so in terms of quality of movie, suspense, score, and overall likelihood that I would tell someone else to see it. I guess it is with a slight shrug that I lean towards saying, like the recent Martin Scorsese thriller Shutter Island (2010), go ahead and see this film and enjoy it for a lot of reasons for which you may not always find yourself enjoying a movie. If I sound a bit disjointed so far it is because I truly am at a loss for the first time in years.

The premise of the film is seemingly simple: former Prime Minister Adam Lang, portrayed with great vigor by Pierce Brosnan in a role built exactly for him, is having his memoirs written by a ghost writer who turns up dead on the beaches of Cape Cod under mysterious circumstances. In steps the new ghost (Ewan McGregor) who is given the job not so much for his political contributions to the world, but for his ability to take seemingly incoherent material and turn it into a best seller (his most recent #1 was about a magician titles I came, I sawed, I conquered.) Throw into the mix the fact that as this is happening Lang is being accused of having committed war crimes and is in a sort of exile on Cape Cod with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his personal assistant/obvious mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall) while they decide how to proceed.

There are more parallels to real life in this film than I could possibly comprehend with my limited political world knowledge, but needless to say there are immediate comparisons to Tony Blair and his links to the CIA, as well as severely obvious references to Polanski himself, who is currently in a form of exile as he awaits facing charges stemming from a widely known story of his accused rape of a teenage girl in the United States some 30+ years ago. I don’t think all of this gets in the way of viewing and enjoying the film, though, but it is so obviously embedded throughout that you would have to be comatose to not recognize some of what is going on.

Right off I want to say that the casting of Kim Cattrall as Lang’s personal assistant is so incredibly wrong that it is difficult for me to move past it, but for purposes of the rest of the review I’ll just leave it at that, and say the rest of the cast is amazingly well put together, and if you are a follower of actors and their careers you may actually give a silent cheer to Ewan McGregor for finally getting back to some real acting. Strong supporting roles are found in by the publishing and editing team of the book, but really Tom Wilkinson as Paul Emmett creates some of the glue that holds parts of this thriller’s pages together, if only for a small, yet vital, supporting role. To discuss him any further would only lead to spoilers so I will stop short.

This was going to be a mini-review when I left the theater, but even now as I move to another paragraph I find myself needing to continue in depth. The movie is set among storm after violent storm, and at some point you have to wonder if it isn’t a bit too much of a smack in your face to handle. Metaphors are everywhere! And it would take a professional film critic with thousands and thousands of movies in his memory to untangle all that Polanski is referencing here (I assume Hitchcock is found throughout but I am no Hitchcock historian.)

The film does set itself up very well for what it is going to become – a political thriller with twists and turns that you may or may not figure out along the way, but it also takes some ridiculous clich├ęd turns which, for lack of a better way to put it, turned me off. At one point we get a short conversation with an old man on the beach that, given what we as the audience have already figured out, seems so gratuitous that we have to wonder how someone with the reputation of Polanski would feel the need to hit us over the head with yet another un-needed device.

My real problem with the film comes from a fundamental disagreement with the turn of the plot, from that of an ordinary writer with no family and seemingly no friends doing a job for money ($250k to turn the book around in a month) into that of a super-hero detective tracking down and trying to uncover a potentially earth-shaking political conspiracy – where did his motivation to become involved in all this come from? I feel this character would have simply got on a plane and gone back to London to work on his next fluff piece.

The score by Alexandre Desplat is wonderful and fits the film perfectly, always moving the action forward and adding to suspenseful scenes, and the cinematography makes you really feel the isolation of the characters as they are mainly holed up on an island amidst turmoil of storms and politics. Polanski certainly has a command of the telling of a story, but I found myself wondering throughout the entire film if I wasn’t being taken for some sort of campy ride with a predictable arc, and yes, I suppose that is all well and good especially for a film released in the dead months of early Spring, in the end I wanted and expected more.

*** and ½ out of 5

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