The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment, PG-13)

Overall, The Ghost Writer feels more than anything like a Hitchcock film in which the dominant emotion is suspense.

It’s only February but I’ve already seen what may well be the best film of the year: The Ghost Writer, directed and co-authored by Roman Polanski. It’s a smart political thriller (adapted from a novel by Robert Harris, who was the other co-author on the screenplay) oozing Polanski’s trademark paranoia and claustrophobia which also manages to be topical as well as often wickedly funny.

The Ghost (Ewan McGregor; the character is unnamed) is a ghostwriter hired to edit the memoirs of Alan Lang (Pierce Brosnan), recently deposed as Prime Minister of Great Britain. The job should only take a month and they’re paying a quarter of a million dollars plus expenses. Now perhaps your mother once warned you about things which are just too good to be true, and no doubt the Ghost’s Mum told him something similar, but the thought of all that cash is too much to pass up.

There is that unfortunate business about the previous ghostwriter dying rather inexplicably (that’s why the job is open) but which voice do you think would sound louder in your head: the prudent one which says to stick to the straight and narrow road or the one which says you’ll never see that amount of money again in your life and what kind of a fool are you really?

Even a mugging and manuscript theft between being hired and getting on the plane to America (Tony Blair, I mean Alan Lang, is currently residing on Martha’s Vineyard) aren’t enough to discourage the Ghost. And he doesn’t exactly bolt for the door when evidence starts piling up that Lang may have collaborated with the CIA on extraordinary rendition. I mention all this because Polanski makes a point of establishing that the Ghost is not an innocent. In fact no one who participates in the process can claim innocence, a point of view not surprising in a film from a director who spent his childhood fleeing the Nazis.

Lang’s compound on the Vineyard is only slightly more secure than Fort Knox and is presided over by an icily menacing Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), Lang’s press secretary and probably his mistress as well: it’s an amazing performance from an actress I associate mainly with Sex and the City. Olivia Williams is equally good as Cherie Blair, I mean Ruth Lang, who’s apparently the wronged woman of the household. Brosnan catches just the right tone as Lang and Ewan McGregor does a good job of selling his role as someone who has to maintain a self-concept not entirely grounded in reality. There are strong supporting performances from Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, James Belushi and Timothy Hutton as well.

Independent of the story and its current topicality, I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed the technical package of a film as much. Overall, The Ghost Writer feels more than anything like a Hitchcock film in which the dominant emotion is suspense: you know something terrible’s going to happen, but exactly what and when? The cinematography by Pawel Edelman establishes the mood immediately with a palette of muted blues and grays and his expertise in low-light photography is something to behold. Music by Alexandre Desplat is key to making the most ordinary situations seem menacing. There are some missteps in terms of locations (Belmont, MA does not have grand houses set back in the woods) but due to Polanski’s legal troubles the film was shot in Europe so I guess they had to go with what was available.

It’s good that the film’s atmosphere is so strong because the story relies on some really obvious plot devices which are only one step above the discovery of the long-lost diary which has resolved the plot of many a well-made play. The Ghost Writer reminds me a little of Val Lewton’s work in that regard: the mood rather than the plot is what sells the film. The Ghost Writer is also lacking a payoff to match its buildup but overall the film delivers such a powerful experience that these objections are only minor quibbles which shouldn’t discourage you from seeing it. | Sarah Boslaugh


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