The Ghost Writer
Synopsis: When a successful British ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), he lives to regret taking on the project of a lifetime. Shortly after discovering that his predecessor on the project died in mysterious circumstances, he uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy.
The Ghost Writer isn't an instant classic, but it's great fun to watch.
BERLIN: In A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers make excellent use of the Jefferson Airplane classic "Somebody to Love." The song's lyrics not only provide ironic counterpoint to middle-class Jewish life in Minneapolis in the late 1960s, but seem oddly suited to the plot of Roman Polanski's latest film The Ghost Writer.
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies...
A ghostwriter is somebody who writes the material ultimately credited to the person listed as the author. But a ghost writer (Robert Harris' novel on which he and Polanski have based the screenplay is called The Ghost) might refer to a writer who has gone on to meet his maker, yet manages to come back to haunt the living.
Ewan McGregor's unnamed scribe is hired on very short notice to rework the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). A seasoned professional willing to wield his pen – or his red pencil – in the service of making his client look good, he has a way with words. But that doesn't mean he won't soon be in over his head.
As soon as he accepts the assignment, he is assaulted in the street – presumably by people who think he has the manuscript. Did I mention that it's a rush job because the original ghost washed up dead on the shores of the American island where the ex-PM and his wife and secretary have repaired to avoid public scrutiny? Don't you just hate it when the fellow who's been writing your memoirs for you falls off the ferry and drowns? SO inconvenient.
McGregor's character – let's call him Mr. Ghost – wants to back out, but his agent emphasises he'll be paid $250,000 for four weeks’ work. (The president of the United States is paid $400,000 for a full year's work. But a lot of power goes with THAT job – and very little-to-none goes with this gig. Or so it seems.)
Mr. Ghost is whisked off from London to America, mere hours after being mugged. In a way, he will continue to be mugged on a regular basis. Polanski is in his element. The people Mr. Ghost encounters are all sort of creepy. They could be perfectly harmless or perfectly harmful. Hard to say.
Polanski is fond of stories in which the central protagonist is buffeted by unexpected information that simply must be dealt with – and given the abrupt twists and turns of his own life, who could blame him? This effort joins the director's Frantic in the "jet-lag" category where mind and body can never quite catch up with a new, deeply problematic – and probably dangerous – environment.
"Can't talk – some peace protesters are trying to kill me," Mr. Ghost tells a caller. But his predecessor presumably boasted a stiff upper lip – and he ended up a stiff, full stop.
Lang's compound is an impossibly modern house with fabulous picture windows overlooking the windswept coast. One servant pointlessly rakes leaves and other debris from the front yard. Her job is impossible. But she does it because she's being paid to do it. Mr. Ghost's assignment could be described the same way.
Accused of war crimes from one day to the next, Lang complains to his advisors "Are you saying I can't leave the United States?" An instantaneous media circus assaults the island as CNN, the BBC and all the other televised initials mount a relentless vigil, accompanied by rabidly intolerant protesters. Suffice it to say, Polanski knows how to film a man, a household, a career and a legacy under siege. (The film was written and shot well prior to Polanski's surprise arrest in Switzerland.)
This is a movie about and for grown-ups – there's hardly anyone under 35 on screen. And Eli Wallach delivers a wonderful, if brief, performance at age 94.
Mr. Ghost is installed in his predecessor's quarters in the house. While removing the dead man's personal effects, Mr Ghost finds some very enticing clues.
Mr Ghost isn't an investigative reporter, but he starts acting like one. We're worried for him. Did I mention that it's a creepy place full of faintly creepy people?
There's Lang's ice queen secretary, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). Then there's Lang's wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). She's outspoken, clearly brilliant and seems to be suffering from the pressure of being a loyal spouse. Hanky panky between Adam and Mrs. Bly is heartily implied. And Ruth doesn't care for her isolated, nature-o-centric surroundings – HER natural habitat is London power circles. This is as far from London Power Circles as Harrod's is from the moon. But there are other power circles – and triangles and squares – to fill the void.
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