Film review: ‘Ghost Writer’ thrills

by Taylor Adams, News Staff

There’s a familiar tint of anticipation and dread surrounding the beginning of Roman Polanski’s new thriller, “The Ghost Writer.” It’s rather like opening an old favorite book or some other familiar act. It’s all there: darkness, a subtle but increasingly disconcerting score building the tension, rain, an empty SUV in a ferry loading dock. A body washed up on a Martha’s Vineyard beach.

No, the director’s films aren’t all the same – they’re actually quite varied, from the dark streets of “Chinatown” and the claustrophobic New York apartment of “Rosemary’s Baby” to the hesitant laughs of “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and even the sophisticated and tragic sounds of Chopin layered over scenes from the Holocaust in “The Pianist.” In this regard, “Ghost Writer” is no different; it delves into new territory for the director: a political thriller.

What all of Polanski’s films do have in common, besides the awards and critical acclaim, is a profound sense of disquiet, perversion, or dread. There’s always some sickness, some treachery, some quiet and artfully-filmed catastrophe.

That aforementioned body on the beach? It belongs to a close friend of ex-prime minister of Britain Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan – who transitions quite nicely from the intrigues of “James Bond” to those of a politician). The deceased man had been helping Lang with his memoirs, a terribly written and hefty bit of prose, and someone needs to whip it into a universally accessible and best-selling shape on an incredibly tight deadline.

Enter The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), whose name, like those of all good ghostwriters, is never revealed. He admittedly knows nothing about politics, but thinks he has the pop sensibility to give the mess of a tale what it needs to sell big: “heart.” Good enough for the publishers.

He’s quickly spirited away to Lang’s picturesque New England retreat. Before long, he’s hacking away at the mysteriously guarded and in-demand manuscript while having a rather difficult time of interviewing the loud, stressed and sometimes elusive politician.

Lang has his own problems. He has suddenly found himself the subject of an International Criminal Court investigation regarding rendition – that is, the practice of sending terrorism suspects abroad to be tortured (waterboarding in the United States) As the political situation becomes more chaotic, The Ghost finds himself in an awkwardly close relationship with Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and begins feeling like he’s gotten himself more than he bargained for.

There’s also the mysterious death of his predecessor, and the unsettling places his investigation and Lang’s past are taking him. Why is he being lied to, why are strange men following him and what are these whispers about the CIA? Polanski tugs the strings, and that feeling of dread, of a coming calamity, comes back into play. McGregor inserts into his character an air of subtle cockiness that one feels might easily get him into trouble – it does.

Polanski, though he could never be pigeonholed as a “horror” director, does indeed deal in terror. It’s not the shock-and-awe of a slasher nor the complex machinations of a purely psychological thriller; it’s something more genuine than either.

Many have claimed that the director’s life of pain, paranoia, and perverse desire has informed the making of his movies. He is, after all, a Holocaust survivor (his mother died at Auschwitz). His pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the followers of Charles Manson, and he has recently been arrested by the Swiss, possibly to be extradited to the United States, for allegedly drugging and forcing himself on a 13-year-old girl at a Los Angeles photo shoot in 1977. He put the finishing touches on “Ghost Writer” from house arrest in Switzerland.

Regardless of whether these experiences filter into his darkly-themed films, Polanski knows how to make an unsettling thriller. “Ghost Writer” makes great use of the spookiness and constant inclement weather of a deserted off-season Vineyard.

Polanski is a master of the furtive glance, the slightly-off social interaction; anything to build suspicion. The cinematography is mischievous, the scenery forlorn and the subtle use of sound is slightly disorienting.

There are politics – enough to make the film timely – and a plot full of conspiracy and twists, but the real tension is from that unrelenting feeling of ill-will that Polanski knows how to lace throughout a film so well. He’s not quite at his best, but “The Ghost Writer” shows that one of the world’s most compelling filmmakers and most controversial men is still very much on top of his cinematic game.