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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

March 9, 2010
RATING: 6.8/10
The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Harris, is a thriller with topical ambitions: it takes place in a jittery, bomb-fearing Britain and America, often in airports or official buildings, where the weary rituals of security screenings refuse to let the characters or the audience relax. When the action goes private, it's mostly on an island off the Massachusetts coast accessible only by ferry, in an austere vacation house apparently constructed entirely of reinforced concrete.

All of this is fantastic in a grab-your-date's-elbow-and-grin-nervously way, but it should be said up front that The Ghost Writer is a wholly hermetic movie, one that spoils instantly upon any exposure to the corrosive air of real politics. The plot requires, for instance, that ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), accused one dark and stormy night of turning over terror suspects to the CIA "for torturing," has a house surrounded by protestors and a special investigatory commission in the Hague the following afternoon. It also does not appear to be joking when, after Brosnan insists to Ewan McGregor that his CIA connections are "just rumors," McGregor, in a stop-deluding-yourself-the-game's-up kind of way, hisses "It's on the Internet!"



So forget all that. What's good in The Ghost Writer is what was good in Polanski's early thrillers, like Rosemary's Baby: it's a languid, brightly lit movie that gradually becomes extremely tense. Movies like these are as good as their gimmicks, and this one has fun with ferry ports, Flash drives, and the oppressive teleology of car GPS systems ("proceed fifty yards and turn left" when you might not actually want to--that sort of thing). McGregor plays the nameless writer, assigned to revise Adam Lang's autobiography after its original ghostwriter died Under Suspicious Circumstances. (There are some pleasantly tingly thematic games here: McGregor is assigned to be Lang's ghost but finds himself inexorably becoming his predecessor's, whose dying drive the aforementioned GPS system has remembered.) Holed up with Lang, his wife, and a small team, McGregor watches the bulky manuscript taken in and out of safes and tries to think of questions to ask Brosnan's PM, who sprawls on couches in positions of unfriendly confidence and apes Tony Blair's heartless grin.

The movie rides its menace a long way, and it grows surer as it goes along, especially once the opening half-hour of wobbly exposition ("It was the book that killed him!") recedes. Olivia Williams, as the wife Lang is keeping increasingly distant, skillfully projects the amused, slightly fragile cynicism of a politician's spouse (except when she actually has to talk politics, when it's the script that kills her). McGregor has wisely chosen to run his character on gormless charm, and reminds us that movies about hack writers are so much more confident and fun than movies about good ones. There should be more of them. (You'd think The Third Man would have produced a glut.)



Nevertheless, Polanski misses tricks. That reinforced concrete, for instance. If you've ever tried to take a cellular call from within reinforced concrete, you might remember experiencing some difficulty, but The Ghost Writer's characters bark into Nokias all the time. And since constantly having to step outside--into the windswept void around the house, where all the audience can think about is snipers--would be precisely the kind of minor stress agent that contributes to a great thriller, it's hard to imagine why they don't. And once McGregor has gotten more or less to the bottom of things, we expect the limousine that arrives in the night to thicken the plot, but instead it just takes us somewhere we can hear it described; and all we have left, it turns out, is pessimistic political theatre.

Which is what finally hobbles the movie. The plot's occasional absurdities can be forgiven; since they're absurdities of premise, not execution, it doesn't break any of the silly rules it sets. But Polanski keeps interrupting the tone to make jokes about American tackiness/venality/corruption (James Belushi, as an American publisher in an early scene exists to rumble fatly about the bottom line), and he, or someone, attempts in The Ghost Writer's ending a return to Chinatown's famously bleak denouement. Except that movie really was a kind of poem, about Jack Nicholson's competent and noble private eye running up against the impregnability of money, whereas McGregor's fate in The Ghost Writer relies on him doing, in public, something so stupid it's impossible to imagine someone who's survived the previous two hours doing it. It's a diabolos ex machina, inserted for the callow thrill of pessimism. So this fun little movie ends up feeling unpleasantly glib--and it's unfortunate for Polanski's public face that its snide and disproportionately wounded observations about America evoke not Jake Gittes, but Humbert Humbert.

TRAILER: www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_AerBW0EcI

SEE ALSO: www.theghostwriter-movie.com

--
Theon Weber


See other articles by Theon Weber.

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