Monday, February 7, 2011

A Nightmare with no escape

In The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's taut suspense/mystery with political overtones, it's either raining, has just rained or looks as though it's about to rain - literally we never see the sun shining during the film. This visual mood is perfect for a story which takes us into a nightmarish setting of deception among various characters who must deal with others in their immediate environment as well as those in the outside world who feel the need to gain access to their private dealings.

The film is based on the 2007 novel The Ghost by British novelist Robert Harris, which told the story of a writer who was assigned to ghostwrite the memoirs of Adam Lang, a fictional British Prime Minister who had recently resigned. The character of Lang is clearly based on Tony Blair and the new ghostwriter must now take over the project of completing the memoirs, as the original writer died during the project. The question of whether his death was an accident or murder is one of the key plot details in this work.

Harris and Polanski have teamed to write the screenplay and it's tightly constructed, alternating between Lang, his wife Ruth and the ghost writer (whose name we never learn). The setting is a private island retreat in New England where Lang and his staff have holed themselves up for privacy's sake and where the new ghost writer must inhabit on a daily basis to complete the work (he can conduct interviews with Lang as well as work on the first draft, which was completed by the former ghost, yet he is not allowed to take the manuscript from the compound, for security purposes.)

The new ghost writer is a bit unsure about taking this assignment at first, but soon changes his mind, given the hefty fee he will receive. He believes as he is not a political man, he can ask Lang honest questions and find out what makes him tick. In one intriguing interview scene, he asks the Prime Minister about his college days at Cambridge when he performed in several student plays. He thinks this information will offer some charming insight for the average reader, but Lang wants no part of it, telling the writer:

"You know what the Times of London said the day I resigned? 'Kindly leave the stage.' So no, we won't dwell, if you don't mind, on my student days as an actor."

Clearly Lang desires to control every detail of his career and while the ghost writer understands this, he is clearly puzzled at what this man wants. The plot thickens when Lang's former Foreign Secretary accuses him on television of allowing conditions for torturing Islamic suspects accused of terrorism. Lang claims his innocence, but the writer starts to doubt that soon afterwards, given the discovery of a few documents and photos he found among the former writer's possessions.

As for Lang's wife Ruth (a superb performance of great subtlety by Olivia Williams), she too begins to question her husband's word, especially as she knows he is carrying on an affair with his secretary (portrayed with a nice matter-of-factness by Kim Catrall, who plays down her sexiness here). Ruth soon wonders if her husband had anything to do with the death of the former ghost after the new writer reveals a few recently discovered details.

The main theme as I see it in this film is that of being trapped:

1) Lang is trapped in his role as Prime Minister. He mentions to the ghost writer that he could not carry money around in his everyday capacities; instead he had to ask someone else to take care of the situation.

2) Lang is also trapped in his own political lies, as he puts on a brave face for the media, claiming no responibility in the current troubles he is accused of.

3) The ghost writer is trapped in a job he is not sure he wants, especially after unturning some crucial new evidence.

4) Ruth is trapped in a loveless marriage. She ultimately will be trapped in a lie concerning her former political career, as well.

5) All of them are trapped on the island compound. Lang cannot travel out of the country for fear of being deported; Ruth needs to stay with her husband and put on a brave face during the investigation and the ghost writer cannot take the manuscript from his working office.

This idea of being trapped is beautifully communicated in Polanski's direction. He combines with his cinematographer Pawel Edelman to give us images of the compound as a virtual prison, as we see the characters framed by the rigid geometry of the walls, windows and rooms. There's one particularly wonderful over-the-shoulder shot, as we see the writer watch Lang, standing just outside in the rain, clearly shouting on his mobile phone. Watching the writer watch Lang become a bit unglued is disarming and it's accomplished by Polanski with great simplicity.

That over the shoulder camera work is also on display in a particularly tense sequence late in the film when the writer is driving from a diplomat's home to return to the island compound via ferry transport. He is being followed and the camera movements here add an edginess that gives the scene its immediacy. Fans of Polanski will recall the many over-the-shoulder shots in the director's most famous film, Chinatown (1974) and this film recalls some of the same nightmares that J.J. Gittes experienced in that tale.

Polanksi's films are often walking nightmares for the main characters, who cannot escape the evil that surrounds them. Think of Rosemary as she discovers the chilling details of her son in Rosemary's Baby (1968), of Gittes discovering the horrible deeds of Noah Cross in Chinatown or of Szpilman in The Pianist (2002), who witnesses the cruel behavior of the SS during his time in hiding during the Second World War.

Even after the book is finished, Ruth is made aware that her former deeds have been discovered; she must live with that knowledge. In a final cruel twist of fate, even the ghost writer does not get to enjoy the relief he must feel upon completion of his work. There is no escape.


While The Ghost Writer was released in the spring of 2010, I am only reviewing it now for several reasons. One is that I initially watched the film aboard a plane ride home from Europe. Even given this atmosphere, I was moved by this work, but clearly, I wanted to view it again so I could take better notes and pick up on more of the film's subtleties. Now that I have seen it twice more over the past week, I felt I was ready to comment on the film.

But more importantly, I wanted to point out what I believe is a disgrace in that this film did not receive a single Oscar nomination. There are several contributors I believe could have and should have been singled out. First, the original score of Alexandre Desplat, whose work here is excellent. The score is haunting, with a certain Bernard Herrmann edginess to it, yet it's totally Desplat's own work, This score is clearly superior to the composer's music for The King's Speech, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. It stands to reason as The King's Speech has been so critically praised with good (but hardly great) box-office numbers (as opposed to The Ghost Writer, which did poor business at the till) that's the film for which the composer would be honored.

At least three performances could have been honored in the supporting categories. As Lang, Pierce Brosnan is first-rate. Though too often known principally for his good looks, Brosnan is an accomplished actor and his performance here is among his finest to date. He combines an easy smile with a quick temper (both on rare occasions) to give us a politician who is proud yet a bit weary of all the attention he receives.

As his wife Ruth, Olivia Williams is outstanding, giving us a portrait of a woman who ruefully accepts her husband's affair(s) but quietly seethes inside at his callow behavior. She subtly brings together all the emotions of this complex woman; she has a sexy earthiness that allows her to enter into a man's private world, ever so quietly.

As diplomat Paul Emmett, who assisted both Lang and his wife in their climb to the top, Tom Williamson is a revelation. He communicates a lot with his body language, often saying more with a glance or a shrug than with actual words. He is careful not to let too much emerge from his personality, except for the fact that he is - shall we say - a bit reserved in how he operates. His character has only a few scenes, but it is a critical one in the story and Wilkinson is memorable.

As for other nominations, there is the taut, brilliantly organized screenplay co-authored by Polanski and Harris as well as the moody, fragile cinematography of Edelman, who also photographed Polanki's The Pianist along with Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004). This is a cinematographer in complete control and one who suits the theme of pervasive moodiness of Polanski's work perfectly.

But above all, the nomination that was overlooked was that for Best Director for Roman Polanski himself. Polanski has delivered one of is finest films here, blocking his scenes with great care and moving his camera with great precision. There is a sense of unease that dominates the look and feel of The Ghost Writer; it's a theme that runs throughout the director's works and it's wonderfully communicated in this film.

So why no nominations for this film? Well, you could point to the fact that the film was released in the spring, a long time before other serious films aimed at award buzz. More importantly, you could point to the fact that the film did little business at the box office as previously mentioned; I'd think this latter reasoning makes more sense.

But it seems to me that the real reason that The Ghost Writer did not receive any Oscar nominations is quite simple - it's Roman Polanski. Given the notoriety of his situation of fleeing the US after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor back in 1977, the Academy decided they wanted nothing to do with him anymore, especially given the publicity of his arrest in Switzerland in 2009 (and subsequent release by Swiss officials in 2010).

Now the Academy did honor Polanski with the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, but his case had been out of the news for years at that time. Also that film dealt with the Holocaust, a sure-fire topic for Oscar glory. So by now, the academy probably believed they had done their good deed in awarding Polanski their top honors back at the 2003 ceremonies. These days, that good will is a thing of the distant past.

I say that as this year at the awards, films as diverse as The King's Speech, The Social Network and True Grit will battle for top honors. I have varying degrees of praise for these three works, but in my opinion, none of them are as finely crafted, deeply disturbing or as beautifully directed as The Ghost Writer.

P.p.s. A final point on the theme of being trapped? Obviously it's Polanski sitting in a Swiss jail as foreign officials decided his fate. Reportedly, Polanski finished editing The Ghost Writer from prison in 2009. Will he ever truly be freed from his own real life nightmare?


  1. What an impassioned, and rightly so, plea for more recognition of this magnificent film.

    In the UK it is simply called 'The Ghost' which for my money works a as better title for the simple reason of the images and tones in conjures up. This is a film so perched on the edge of reality, so fraught with intrigue and composed of sharp edges, frayed tempers, confined spaces and a good deal of upper lip, the Ghost as a title invokes a world we cannot see, a hidden truth behind the lovely fake smile of Pierce Brosnon - who, I agree, is simply made for this part.

    Whatever it's called this is still a classic piece of film-making which one does not see all that often. The tone is pitched from the word go, just beyond the real world and never lets go for a second, what a genuinely brilliant piece of hokum and mastery. It's great to meet a fellow passionate fan.

  2. Ibetolis:

    Yes, I had heard that the film is simply called "The Ghost" in the UK. I hadn't thought about it, but you're right, it is a more appropriate title. I like your phrase about the film being "perched on the edge of reality."

    This is classic filmmaking, so why haven't more people noticed? At least, why haven't the people that go to see movies noticed? Are they so in love with CGIs and action movies that they are bored by work such as this? I hope not. Polanski is a master filmmaker and we need to celebrate artists such as him.

  3. Tom: thank you for the review, it's brilliant. I couldn't agree more with your definition of the main theme as being trapped; it's actually the theme of all Polanski movies (only the degree varies, and the specifics of a given situation).
    A masterpiece as it is, it sure isn't really Oscar material. It's way too subtle, it relies on hues and hints; as Polanski said, "I make films for the grown-ups". Oscar just doesn't live up to it. If not for the unfortunate circumstances you referred to, though (which I analyse here, the whole sad situation in American cinema could have been different.

  4. Excellent review. Don´t forget the chilling short performance by Eli Wallach, so fragile yet so hauntingly present, stepping out of the dark interior of the front porch into the limelight resembles the appearance of a ghost stepping out of the shadows of the twilight zone.

  5. Robert: Excellent comment. Yes, that scene with Wallach is an important moment, one that deepens the mystery of this story.