Polanski's 'Ghost Writer' Serves up Cinematic Caviar
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
'Tis the season of cinematic dreck -- those lackluster months between the year-end glut of awards-bait and the onslaught of summer blockbusters. A steady diet of junk food like "Edge of Darkness," "Dear John," and "The Wolfman" dulls the palate, upping our appetite for gourmet filmmaking. So it's a movie-lovin' pleasure to sink one's teeth into "The Ghost Writer," Roman Polanski's brilliant blend of political intrigue and his typically tragicomic reading of human vanity -- indelibly summed up in "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."
From the second it begins, "The Ghost Writer" signals directorial authority and precision, subtly codifying the film's existential style and substance. A ghostly white ferryboat looms out of the dark to discharge its load of cars, one vehicle after another driving off the deck, till only a stubbornly stationary BMW remains. We don't yet know the full significance of that car's abandonment, but its immobility, absent a driver, stirs rising dread.
That dread informs every location in "The Ghost Writer": A deserted ferry landing or a narrow road winding through woods feels like ground zero for some imminent -- possibly metaphysical -- assault. The circuitous trajectory of Polanski's film is from fatal absence to absence, with human mortality so sure and incidental that it doesn't even require foregrounding. Here, as in the cruel ending of "Chinatown," a character may die off-screen, out of frame, but traffic -- the motion that fools us into believing we are headed somewhere -- rolls on. (Indulging Polanski's absurdist sense of humor, his ghost writer finds his way to a CIA "spook" with the assertive assistance of a pre-programmed GPS! Said spook is sequestered in a bone-white Colonial "box," situated deep in a dripping green forest, a perfectly surreal stage set.)
A masterly remix of Robert Harris' political thriller novel "The Ghost," Polanski's 18th feature immerses us in a murky medium of corruption and paranoia, the "fish tank" world in which a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), his sharkish wife (Olivia Williams, late of TV's "Dollhouse") and icebox mistress (Kim Cattrall) swim. (Harris' novel was notorious for glaring similarities to Tony and Cherie Blair; such parallels are beside Polanski's point.)
Giving an intelligent, advisedly damped-down performance, Ewan McGregor plays a somewhat colorless writer hired on to ghost Prime Minister Adam Lang's memoirs -- his predecessor, driver of that deserted BMW, having become either suicide or murder victim. Identified only as "the Ghost," McGregor's writer aims to get at "the heart" of Lang's story. Could be he's got a leg up on the political angle, since the last memoir he ghosted -- "I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered" -- celebrated the life of a magician.
Much of "Ghost's" claustrophobic action takes place inside the ex-PM's New England beach retreat, a tightly guarded bunker crouched under lowering pewter-gray skies. The prevalent drear and damp of the film's outdoor environs -- Germany standing in for Martha's Vineyard -- comes courtesy of painterly lensing by Pawel Edelman, who shot Polanski's "The Pianist" and "Oliver Twist." Inside Lang's concrete box, McGregor's ghost wanders from minimalist-modern landing to landing, bleak stage to bleak stage, auditing the melodramatic (and manipulative) antics of Lang and his entourage. (Kudos to Albrecht Konrad's flawless production design.)
One wall of Lang's office is divided, half a dark barrier embellished by a smeary abstract painting, the other floor-to-ceiling glass. It's Polanski's powerfully unsettling, and probably very personal, metaphor for life lived in the public eye, for the double illusions of transparency and privacy. Perhaps that strange wall is even suggestive of a partially curtained movie screen.
Every conversation with Lang, or anyone else in "Ghost Writer," is deliciously rife with omissions and diversions, thrust and parry. Pierce Brosnan deftly incarnates a leading-man politico, an actor blessed with shallow charm and easy patter. Offstage, Lang barely exists, so thoroughly is he "handled" by his brainy wife, his secretary-mistress, his bodyguards and unknown others behind the scenes. When he does exit the public eye, the political star's absence hardly registers, except as media sensation.
As Ruth Lang, the reliably assertive Olivia Williams is all sharp edges, sexy in that smart, acid-tongued Brit style. Supplanted by Cattrall's minimally less acerbic allure, crying on the ghost's shoulder, she seems the perfect model of wounded wife -- though when the mask slips, you'd swear you'd glimpsed a Medusa. Ruth is only one of the mysteries, past and current, that the ghost writer probes in the faith he's on the track of some central, game-changing revelation about Lang's dicey political career, topped now by an indictment for crimes against humanity.
Interrogating a retired academic (Tom Wilkinson, superb) reminiscent of Hitchcock's tweedy professors in "The 39 Steps" and "North by Northwest," McGregor's every attempt to unravel a decades-old political plot is checkmated by the kind of politesse that's hardened by an impenetrable, unflappable sense of self. It's a nasty, entertaining two-hander, with far more at stake than McGregor knows. That's the rub: our ghost-guide doesn't get that he's an expendable pawn, an invisible man by his very profession. Like "Chinatown's" detective, the truth-seeking scribe deceives himself into thinking he has become a major player in a drama with a beginning, middle and end.
Scene by scene, performance by performance, this mesmerizing movie degrades our sense of what's real, what matters. That way lies the madness of "Repulsion" and "The Tenant." A cinematic measure of Polanski's existential despair, "The Ghost Writer" implies some Dantean circle of hell where we fill our days with one empty theatrical after another -- political, personal, whatever -- until we're hooked off the stage for good.
What's certain is that on this director's bleakly beautiful stage, players, pawns, best-laid plans -- nothing is proof against sudden erasure, casualty of some new fiction, rife with busy ghosts convinced of their firm grasp on reality and their own fate.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.