Roman Polanski has been making movies for the last 55 of his 78 years - - and making tabloid headlines for more than half that time, thanks to his deplorable treatment of an underage Hollywood ingénue which now finds the director under house arrest in Switzerland, pending an extradition battle that might well return him to Los Angles to face decade-old sexual assault charges. Since decamping for Europe in the late 1970’s, Polanski has continued to turn out high quality movies, following his early successes (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) with such diverse fare as Death and the Maiden, Frantic, The 9th Gate and The Pianist, for which he won an Oscar as best director in 2002. Whatever level of revulsion one feels about his personal conduct so many years ago, there’s no denying his skills as a filmmaker.
The director shares screenwriting credit here with Robert Harris, the novelist who wrote the book upon which Polanski’s move is based. It involves the fate of an unnamed journeyman writer (Ewan McGregor) whose cynicism is exceeded only by his political ignorance; when the body of a collaborator hired to polish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) washes up on the shore of an island off the coast of Rhode Island, McGregor’s hired to do a speedy re-write while sequestered with the aforesaid politician, his gloomy wife, and Amelia Bly, (Kim Cattrall) Lang’s arrogant private secretary. As anti-war protesters discover Lang’s whereabouts and vehemently harangue him about his bellicose handling of England’s foreign policy (a la Tony Blair) “the ghost” begins to uncover a series of disturbing clues which contradict the supposed suicide of his predecessor and more importantly, dispute the ostensible motivations of the Prime Minister himself. A decades-long cover-up seems likely, but will the writer find himself dead in the middle of the story rather than writing about it from the safety of the sidelines?
Polanski and Harris are old pros at coating the wildly improbable with a gloss of the marginally possible, but in the hands of a director with less skill and finesse than Polanski, would this script would have pulled the threads of its storyline into the tightly-knotted noose it becomes? With the Hitchcock-ian flair for seemingly innocuous plot elements which turn out to be more lethal than initially imagined (combined with a focus on sinister elements that turn out to be harmless asides or dead ends) Polanski pulls his audience into a mental puzzle which not only demands deciphering what actually happened, but far more interestingly, who was responsible.
The director’s use of gloomy, windswept beaches, (The English coast substitutes for New England’s) ominously deserted back-country roads, isolated motels and dark sedans made sinister by their inscrutable occupants combine to ratchet up the tension produced by the characters as they race though landscapes as murky and treacherous as the people who inhabit them. In achieving this paranoid effect, Polanski’s especially aided by Brosnan, Cattrall and the always stellar Tom Wilkinson who plays an unctuous college professor that appears to know people he shouldn’t and indulge in games hardly academic.
Like many gifted directors whose work spans early success to mature storytelling, Polanski’s efforts appear deceptively simple - - there is no trick camera work here, no attempt to amp up the tension by shooting from artificially concocted vantage point or employing eye-catching, distorted perspectives. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman, (like Polanski, a native of Lodz Poland) propels the storyline with an uncluttered and unhurried point of view, as intent on dispassionately registering the usually mundane along with the occasionally horrific. The effect isn’t horror-movie creepy, but it is engrossingly sinister.
With a climatic twist as surprising as it is cynical, Polanski puts a bow on this gift-wrapped mystery which permits the director to slyly ruminate on his own experiences as a public figure called to account for aspects of his past he’s long since given up attempting to explain.
Ghost Writer isn’t a great film, nor even the best effort from this much-maligned director. But it is a hellva slick thriller, made all the more effective for not trying too hard to knock audiences out of their seats with flashy tricks. Polanski does it the old-fashioned way, mixing a solid story with skilled actors and a point-of-view drenched in his own rather jaundiced perspective. The result? Just a couple of the most intriguing and enjoyable hours you’ll spend in the dark all year.
The Verdict? See it.
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