Sunday, February 28, 2010
THE GHOST WRITER Film Review
by Brian Holcomb
I am consistently amazed at Roman Polanski's seemingly effortless mastery of cinematic craft. I say "seemingly" because such effortlessness is rarely achieved without hard work. But onscreen, there is no wasted energy and no indulgence. Polanski is without doubt an "auteur" but he feels no need to remind us of this. He simply has a story to tell and applies the precise tools to the job at hand. His wisdom comes from the realization that great films are made by really telling the story. For most filmmakers cinematic storytelling means nothing more than getting all the beats of the plot in the proper order and recording the events on camera. For Polanski, a film story is much more than just "Following the mysterious drowning of his predecessor, a gifted author hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a controversial former British Prime Minister becomes a hunted man when he uncovers explosive secrets about the past." That's Robert Harris' novel The Ghost in a nutshell. Any number of filmmakers could film the mechanics of this narrative in a vaguely competent manner. Vaguely competent craft did nothing to hurt the box office of a really awful film like The Da Vinci Code for example.
To "really" tell the story, Polanski does everything in his power to feed the audience's imagination. As they say, the devil is in the details and for Polanski it seems that he takes this literally. For example, The Ghost Writer is largely set at a rainswept beach house that the former Prime Minister keeps in Martha's Vineyard. Polanski knows that in telling the story everything depends on the specifics. Exactly what kind of house would a man in his position own? What would it say about his personality or his existence? He then probes the atmospherics of the environment itself. People do not exist in a vacuum. They must live within nature itself whether it's a comfortably warm spring or the coldest day of winter. This also has an effect on the story. In this film, we find ourselves trapped in a claustrophobic fortress of a beach house that sits by a raging sea during the winter. Everything is so cold and soaking wet that the characters feel the pressure within and without.
What results is not something that can be pulled apart easily but a complex totality that equals the sum of all the careful choices made throughout. Even a "throwaway" scene of the ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) sitting in his London flat has the complete authenticity of a lived in space. The details root the characters in a coherent world. The sharply motivated characters root the plot in a coherent series of actions. Even the most mundane of dialogue scenes in the film has a certain wit due to the fact that every character in the scene seems poised with his or her own clear agenda. Everyone is up to something and their actions are all in some way, manipulative. The first meeting between Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and his new ghost writer has him sweating from a morning run and sitting on the couch with his legs wide open as though he was waiting for the young man to "service" him. The dialogue is accompanied by smiles but what lies beneath is an expression of power. A brief chat late in the film between the ghost writer and a quiet, seemingly unassuming man named Paul Emmett(Tom Wilkinson)has so much tension you almost expect the room to explode.
The Ghost Writer is the kind of story that often does not work because the filmmaker fails to find the proper balance between ambiguity and outright incomprehension. It's important to keep the audience watching exactly what needs to be watched in order to follow the narrative. Many filmmakers cannot separate the wheat from the chaff and the result is a muddle. What Polanski has done here is to focus the attention on the primary mysteries in the narrative and leave much of the follow-up questions and details simply suggested onscreen. He does this in a very sly manner as always with images that create impressions in the mind that you play back later when there is more context. A statement about flashlights on the beach witnessed on the night the former ghost writer drowned is echoed by an image of the Prime Minister's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) going for a night walk followed by her bodyguard armed with a flashlight.
Polanski's eye for casting has lost none of its edge, particularly among the supporting roles. A shockingly bald James Belushi registers immediately as a no nonsense book publisher, Kim Cattrall reminds you that she once played other roles besides Samantha, Eli Wallach still seems as vibrant as he was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Tom Wilkinson nearly takes over the movie in his 5 minutes onscreen. As for the main cast, Brosnan's slightly detached air is used very well in the role of a Prime Minister who was a former actor and Olivia Williams gives a very complex performance in what could've been a completely lame femme fatale role. But the real surprise is Ewan McGregor who finally fulfills the promise he displayed a decade ago as a bona fide leading man. McGregor carries the film very well and with great charm and humor.
Humor is one of the film's real surprises too. Though The Ghost Writer is a conspiracy thriller, it's not what Stephen King once referred to as a "thudding humorless tract". It is actually a very funny film with some wonderfully cynical dialogue delivered with deadpan skill by McGregor and cast. Polanski has plenty of time to include his characteristic absurdist touches as well. A strange running gag about sandwiches may not register with some but a great visual joke involving the beach house caretaker's futile attempts to sweep up the deck amid howling winds presents the entire film in a single image. As Mcgregor says near the end of the film, "None of this will fucking matter." Polanski says just as much in the film's witty final shot. It's cruel, tragic, shocking, clever and absolutely hilarious at the same time. Most of all, it seemed completely effortless.
Dir. Roman Polanski. 2010. PG-13. 128mins. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach
KINETOFILM SCORE: 5/5