Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 74 (B+)
When Roman Polanski was arrested in 2009 for his 1977 rape of an underage girl, it looked for a while like The Ghost Writer (or, as it’s called overseas, The Ghost) would be the Oscar-winning director’s final film. The movie was strangely underseen upon its release, its release alongside Martin Scorsese’s somewhat similar (and superior) Shutter Island likely overshadowing the quieter thriller. But The Ghost Writer was rightfully hailed as one of the best late-period Polanski films, and while it did not ultimately serve as the director’s swan song, it would nonetheless have made a great career-capper.
Ewan McGregor stars as an unnamed ghostwriter hired to replace the last ghostwriter for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who’s currently under investigation for war crimes. McGregor starts to find out some sinister things about Lang, from his connection to the CIA to the details behind the previous ghostwriter’s mysterious death. McGregor starts to fear for his life as he grows closer to Lang’s chilly wife Ruth (Olivia Williams).
If there’s a downside to The Ghost Writer, it’s that Polanski isn’t particularly interested in the political implications of the film. Lang is clearly inspired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but any interest in drawing real-world parallels stayed behind in Robert Harris’ novel. It isn’t that Polanski needs to make this connection, but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in the actual plot of the film, which sometimes suffers as a result. It’s just a vehicle for Polanski’s gift at crafting thrillers.
But what a thriller it is. The film has an elegant opening worthy of Hitchcock- a car doesn’t get off the ferry, and a body washes ashore. With that, Polanski brings about a mood of dread that perfectly compliments the cold, sleek, sterile environment McGregor encounters at Lang’s Massachusetts hideaway. Polanski also brings some great dry humor whenever dealing with the sorry state of the book- a montage of McGregor struggling to stay awake while reading Lang’s dull first draft is particularly funny. Polanski’s gift at perspective is in great form here as well: we never see more than what McGregor sees, and that limited perspective makes for some great misdirection and sense of isolation that Polanski’s particularly deft at.
The film is populated by strong supporting performances (with the exception of a miscast Kim Cattrall), from Jim Belushi as McGregor’s blustery publisher to Tom Wilkinson as a possible CIA contact of Lang’s to Eli Wallach as an old man who saw something funny the night the previous ghostwriter died. Brosnan does some of his best work as the arrogant but strangely likeable Lang, but Olivia Williams is the film’s secret weapon as a femme fatale of sorts whose gift at hiding things from McGregor and the audience is best appreciated on repeat viewings.
McGregor’s work as an everyman with no particular political opinions initially seems effective more than impressive, but it’s a more complicated performance than that. Polanski posits the character as a man with no existence, one who can easily disappear or be controlled by more powerful agents (a reoccurring theme of his), and McGregor’s slow recognition of the danger he’s in is remarkably inspired in its subtlety. The film doesn’t ultimately have the depth of Polanski’s best thrillers, but the twisty-turny game of political intrigue and slow-burning paranoia builds to a masterful climax. It’s style over substance, to be sure, but damn, that’s nice style.