The Ghost Writer

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The politi­cian, the women, and no ghost.

The open­ing scene of The Ghost Writer (2010) put me off. “Whatever hap­pened to the Roman Polanski of such mind-blow­ing mas­ter­pieces as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown?” I thought as I watched a fer­ry dis­charge its load of cars. Worst of all, it hap­pened to the per­cus­sive music we’ve come to asso­ciate with (drum roll) Grand Political Thrillers. Having not slept the night before, I set­tled into my seat with the reas­sur­ing thoughts: “This movie will suck. Polanski, you old Pole, you’ve lost your touch. Finally, I can take a nap.” One sheep, two sheep, three sheep… If geese is the plur­al of goose, why isn’t sheep the plur­al of shoop? I asked myself as I start­ed drift­ing off.

But then some­thing hap­pened.

Before I say what that some­thing was, I should digress a lit­tle to talk not about the movie I am review­ing, but about this review and its review­er: My name is Meedo and I love watch­ing movies. I love mak­ing them even more. In fact, I made a cou­ple of my own, but then decid­ed to go on hia­tus from both watch­ing and mak­ing. My favorite review­ers (the peo­ple around me) and some less favorite but equal­ly inter­est­ing crit­ics (Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB) would break into rants and raves about each new release, then just as quick­ly for­get all about it and move on to the next thing, and all the time I just watched from the side­lines.

These days, I haven’t even been watch­ing from those side­lines. First, my huge (I spent all my sav­ings on it) col­lec­tion of clas­sic DVDs (from the likes of the The Criterion Collection) sits case-less and scat­tered, gath­er­ing dust in my room. Second, I only go to the cin­e­ma when I’m lit­er­al­ly dragged out of the house by my friends. Most recent­ly, this hap­pened first with Avatar, and yes­ter­day with The Ghost Writer.

Therefore, I am obliv­i­ous. I have no idea what the media has been writ­ing about the movies I watch. Beyond the tiny hints that the title, cast, direc­tor, and poster offer as I walk in, I have no idea whether the film is sup­posed to be a roman­tic, ston­er or bud­dy com­e­dy, a psy­cho­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal or super­nat­ur­al thriller, a med­ical, social or his­tor­i­cal dra­ma, or what com­bi­na­tion there­of. I don’t know if it’s sup­posed to be Oscar-wor­thy, a dud, a sleep­er hit, or the Biggest Thing Since Titanic (or Avatar).

This was my state of mind as I set­tled into my seat yes­ter­day, hav­ing decid­ed that Polanski was past his prime and that the high-octane thriller music that scored the open­ing scene of The Ghost Writer shall be my love­ly lul­la­by into the land of sleep.

Then, as I said, some­thing hap­pened: The movie got good.

Correction. It got relent­less­ly, in your face, fuck­ing bril­liant. It start­ed when, thriller music mind­less­ly thump­ing along, one of the cars on the fer­ry refused to budge. It had to be craned off as its alarm shrieked out, over­pow­er­ing the score with its pathet­ic nasal­ly pitch. Cut to a scene where Ewan McGregor, an up-and-com­ing writer, nego­ti­ates a deal to ghost­write the mem­oirs of Adam Lang, for­mer British Prime Minister. The scene (four men in an office talk­ing) was a bril­liant piece of rat-a-tat dia­logue and humor made pos­si­ble by semi-for­got­ten actors Timothy Hutton and James Belushi. It end­ed with McGregor walk­ing out of the pub­lish­ing house with a $250K deal and a thick man­u­script under his arm.

Here I will have to tip­toe through the plot to avoid spoil­ers. On his way back to his flat, McGregor is involved in a twist that hints at Polanski’s true inten­tions with this film: This is not a polit­i­cal thriller. More accu­rate­ly, this is not just a polit­i­cal thriller. In the hands of a less­er direc­tor, the inci­dent in ques­tion (which I shall not reveal) would have been milked for all its worth. At the very least there would have been a car chase. In Polanski’s hands, it hap­pens just as non­cha­lant­ly as it would have in real life (real life has no place in a polit­i­cal thriller any­way). It also pre­pares us for when, much lat­er in the film, a major char­ac­ter also meets their bloody end in the same frill-free, unadorned, un-cin­e­mat­ic tone.

And just like that, in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of Harrison Ford in Frantic, Polanski’s oth­er bril­liant faux-thriller from the 80’s, McGregor is drawn into the intrigue. But with real life comes ennui – a def­i­nite no-no in thrillers in par­tic­u­lar and cin­e­ma in gen­er­al… unless you’re Godard and Le Mépris in the 60’s, or in this case Mr. Polanski, for what fol­lows is an end­less sequence of plane and car rides that takes McGregor from London to an island off the coast of New York, where ex Prime Minister Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan) and his entourage are lay­ing low after a polit­i­cal scan­dal. The ennui con­tin­ues as we real­ize that the bulk of the movie will take place in this drab, über-mod­ern, won­der­ful­ly grey space of béton brut (yes won­der­ful if you’re a mild-man­nered writer look­ing for a qui­et place to write your man­u­script, but fatal if you’re a pumped up movie-goer look­ing for a rol­lick­ing thriller).

It was so bor­ing!” — Lea on the polit­i­cal thriller of the year.

The space is not with­out its splash­es of excite­ment, in the form of a bizarrely (and ulti­mate­ly inge­nious­ly) cast Kim Catrall as Lang’s Chief-of-staff, his over­act­ing and super-obnox­ious wife (whom I liked and hat­ed in equal mea­sures), a duo of hilar­i­ous­ly stereo­typ­i­cal Asian house­keep­ers who always look like they’re eaves­drop­ping, and the won­der­ful Brosnan him­self, hon­ing to per­fec­tion his post-Bush politi­co, com­plete with sig­na­ture man­ner­isms (“He calls you Man when he can’t remem­ber your name.” — ide­al since McGregor’s ghost writer is nev­er named any­way!), cheeky grins, squin­ty looks, and luke­warm affa­bil­i­ty.

Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchock definesMacGuffin as “the mechan­i­cal ele­ment that usu­al­ly crops up in any sto­ry. In crook sto­ries it is almost always the neck­lace and in spy sto­ries it is most always the papers”. The nature of the object itself, Hitchcock says, is not impor­tant. Yet it is what dri­ves the sto­ry for­ward: all the char­ac­ters are after it, and some even kill or are killed for it. In The Ghost Writer we get both the neck­lace (OK, a mod­ern alter­na­tive, the USB stick) and the papers, with which Polanski tells us his film is both a crook sto­ry and a spy sto­ry. It is so much more. In fact, not only do we get not one but two MacGuffins, but also sev­er­al red her­rings, wild-goose chas­es, dead ends, and shady char­ac­ters. Lock, stock, and bar­rell. Hook, line, and sinker. Everything and the kitchen sink. In oth­er words, the works.

The world of pol­i­tics is messy, and so is this movie — which is exact­ly why it is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly not a polit­i­cal thriller, but a polit­i­cal satire dis­guised as a thriller. Instead of the neat­ness of polit­i­cal thrillers, we get the clum­si­ness of pol­i­tics itself. Characters cheat and lie with con­vic­tion, yet they also seem curi­ous­ly aware of the bag­gage the actors who play them car­ry — all this with­out ever break­ing the fourth wall or resort­ing to cheap nudge nudge wink wink humor: Cattrall sways her ass (and Polanski’s cam­era hap­pi­ly lingers on it) à la Samantha from Sex and the City, yet remains true to her Chief-of-staff char­ac­ter, and Brosnan’s Lang remains thor­ough­ly ruth­less, yet tem­pers his mal­ice with irre­sistible James Bond suave. These char­ac­ters know they are sec­ondary to McGregor’s pas­sive writer, yet hun­gri­ly claw at eachother for screen pres­ence (Olivia Williams’ abra­sive scorned-wife-ish over-act­ing, which I grew to love by the end, is a stand­out), just as they would on the polit­i­cal podia in real life. Just as in Kubrick’s much-maligned swan-song Eyes Wide Shut, even the bit-play­ers (includ­ing two hotel clerks and a sur­pris­ing cameo by Eli Wallach) are just as col­or­ful, if not more so, than the leads.

I will not even attempt to write about the end­ing. Suffice to say it throws the daz­zling the­mat­ic kalei­do­scope that makes up this movie into abrupt and sharp focus: This is a polit­i­cal thriller. It is a polit­i­cal satire. And it is a movie about movies. All of these gen­res should not (and could not) have a neat denoue­ment. Yet, just like he did in Chinatown, the con­sis­tent­ly bril­liant Roman Polanski some­how, almost mirac­u­lous­ly, gives us one.

Rating 10/10 (yes)

Phew! Now that I have my own review out of my sys­tem, I’ll final­ly read what every­one else had to say about the movie.

Directed by Roman PolanskiStarring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams

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