Unsophisticated ploys cheapen latest Polanski thriller
The Ghost Writer, controversial Oscar-winning director Roman Polanskiâs newest film, was made under intense personal stress. Filmed in exile, edited under house arrest and released during complicated legal troubles, the resulting film is a claustrophobic, compelling thriller that feels only a little bit rushed. Some guys canât write five-paragraph essays after their girlfriends break up with them â the fact that Polanski was able to make the movie at all is a testament to his love for the art, and, with todayâs release, Polanski shows that he can still make a great film.
The Ghost Writer follows Ewan McGregorâs character, a writer referred to only as âthe ghost,â as he undertakes to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Though Lang is cooperative and feeds the ghost sandwiches, the suspicious circumstances of his predecessorâs death lead the ghost to suspect that the enigmatic Lang might be a less than scrupulous politician. The ghost, who only took the job for the money, quickly finds himself neck-deep in conspiracy theories and high-stakes political scheming.
Performances by the primaries are stellar. McGregor is great, but itâs Brosnan who truly excels under Polanskiâs direction. Brosnanâs ability to maintain a witty geniality when he seems ready to boil over makes for a remarkably nuanced performance that heâs hasnât achieved before.
Olivia Williams, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, Kim Cattrall and Jim Belushi round out the cast as Langâs cronies. Cattrall and Belushi might seem like questionable choices, but Polanski has always been adept with actors. The performances are successful across the board.
The story is based on a novel by author Robert Harris, and, though the premise isnât groundbreaking, Polanski and Harris competently build a complex and believable world. Though sometimes a little bogged down with its own politics, the script flows remarkably well. Until an elderly local steps in to elucidate any questions the audience might have, The Ghost Writer has all the makings of a classic keep-them-guessing thriller.
Polanskiâs skills as a writer should be commended, but elements of the storytelling feel haphazard for such an experienced filmmaker. The plot gets overstuffed with unnecessary and occasionally silly details, and every âkey witness in a comaâ excuse falls progressively flatter than the one before it. Does the audience really need an âold timer familiar with the currentsâ to tell them the previous ghost writerâs allegedly accidental drowning was â gasp â not accidental? There are CSI episodes that handle the same reveal with more aplomb. When the penultimate twist is spelled out â really, literally S-P-E-L-L-E-D out â it becomes clear Polanski is filling in blanks that didnât need filling. Somewhere, hidden amid cheap plot points, there is an extremely intelligent story that doesnât need help in establishing its narrative. This is the filmâs biggest problem, and, though itâs nice to imagine the increased tension that would have accompanied subtler storytelling, the filmmakers canât be faulted for pandering to the public. Since this is the biggest suspense film in a while that doesnât feature Shia LaBeouf, some might need a step-by-step refresher course in the finer points of the thriller genre. All the same, Polanski deserves credit for maintaining a highly intense film with these crude, fun-spoiling plot points included.
Alexandre Desplat delivers his typically great score, expertly balancing his music with Polanskiâs infamously suspenseful direction. Desplat has been nominated again for an original score Oscar this year â for the peppy music from Fantastic Mr. Fox â but, if he doesnât win for that, he should get consideration next year for his unnerving, energetic work in this film. The score proves essential to maintaining Polanskiâs atmosphere, and Desplat deserves kudos for this achievement.
In fact, the entire cast and crew deserve praise. If it werenât for those gratuitous plot devices, the film would be near perfect. The story is gripping despite the aforementioned pandering, and the sharper twists are rewarding. And as could be expected from Polanskiâs director, the last moments of the film are absolutely stunning â emotionally and aesthetically. Itâs that last moment, in all its subtle, devilishly clever glory, that reminds viewers that Polanski is an indomitable master and provokes the same viewers to wonder where he was two minutes ago when Speak & Spell was spoon-feeding them the story.
Technically and aesthetically exceptional in sound, direction and performance, The Ghost Writer shines through its weaker moments and adds further clout to the already astounding repertoire of Roman Polanski.