The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)

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Director Roman Polanski’s choice of material has been in steady decline for decades, and his 2010 political thriller The Ghost Writer doesn’t so much buck this trend as fully own up to it. Based on a Robert Harris bestseller, it has all the sociological subtlety of a Thomas Nast cartoon and the trashy liveliness of the kind of mid-’90s chestnut that airs on Cinemax at 3 in the morning. There’s virtually nothing to be discovered under the surface (Harris’ comparisons to Hitchcock are laughable), but the cast and crew have the time of their lives, which gives us license to turn off our brains and enjoy ourselves.

And there’s certainly some cleverness here, though it mostly falls under the umbrella of gimmickry. We track a professional ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) as he takes a lucrative deal to polish the memoir of a thinly veiled Tony Blair figure (Pierce Brosnan), replacing a predecessor who was mysteriously drowned. The gig falls into complication, first when the writer is confronted while living in-house on Martha’s Vineyard with the mass protests for the former Prime Minister’s war crimes — source of the film’s only true risky strokes — then when he stumbles into a role as comforting figure and sex partner for the PM’s hot, perpetually angry wife (Olivia Williams), then finally when he gets caught up in cloak and dagger mode as the man tracking the haunted Dark Secrets of the ex-PM’s past, courtesy of a mysterious envelope taped to the bottom of a drawer (no, really) and a lot of tense ferry rides with the constant threat of danger. A lot to put on a hack’s shoulders.

Inevitably, similarities with novel and film(s) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are everywhere in the central wish-fulfillment concept of a writer who becomes not just privy to the bed-hopping and earth-shaking inside track of the rich and powerful (a la Donald Spoto and Bob Woodward, the latter once labeled by Christopher Hitchens a “stenographer to the stars”) but is actually physically absorbed into their world, has an impact on it, and is finally tracked with the espionage-level craft of sleuthing out and exposing a grand truth and altering lives, ideas, the world — but Harris wrote his novel before Larsson’s was published in English, so it’s most likely a coincidence. But the collision of ideas in the two stories is disturbingly illuminating in regard to modern ideas of what journalism actually is and what purpose writers serve in this era. The old All the President’s Men-era notion of steadfast integrity while dealing with earth-shaking material is here in fits and starts, but mostly these boys want us to believe in poison-pen James Bonds who, however haplessly at times, get the girl and solve the mystery with their lifetime-in-reserve gifts.

The Ghost Writer doesn’t even pretend to touch on the larger ideas suggested by Dragon Tattoo‘s placement of a genuinely vivid character, Lisbeth, at its center; this is all airport-reading stuff, with the kind of twists and turns that tickle the brain momentarily before you have much time to consider how little sense they make. The ride is a wild one, with McGregor’s nameless hero dodging an increasingly sinister collection of characters who are suspicious in the invariably dignified fashion of Harvard professors and men who sit on this or that board of advisers. That’s an old Buchan trick that added to the sense of danger in The 39 Steps, within a sequence Polanski elegantly quotes here while missing the grand trick of it: that the greatest danger of all springs from a false sense of security. There’s a little of The Manchurian Candidate in the magnificently bravura climax, which Polanski injects with as much energy as anything he’s ever done, using a series of unforgettable photographic punctuations: words, passed note, flying pages. The question remains, is all that energy worth expending for something this freaking silly?

For Polanski, the answer appears to have been “yes”; for whatever reason, his creativity seems to have been excited beyond belief at this superficial story and his excitement manages quite seamlessly to become ours. The blocking and photography are brilliant — played in stunningly fluid long shots and lengthy takes, with a splendidly surreal and drab color palette (shot by Pawel Edelman, previously the D.P. on The Pianist) and an impressively old-world sense of subjectivity and immersion. He’s invested, and the result is one of the best-looking thrillers in a number of years. He’s also cast the thing flawlessly; McGregor’s been better elsewhere, but he’s the ideal vessel for a populist audience; Brosnan, typically a stodgy actor, is nearly as good in this act of often acidic but tasteful mockery as he was in a much more self-effacing part in Mars Attacks!; and best of all, worthy of the accolades she received, is Olivia Williams. Like Polanski himself, Williams seems to have been moved by this script in a way that’s hard for the audience to understand, but she certainly helps us connect by drawing from some netherworld of emotions to create a cold, calculating, believably fire-breathing character who’s also three-dimensional and consistently (until the dramatic finale, at least) sympathetic.

The weak link, then, is Harris, who cowrote the script with Polanski; he doesn’t perform any of the heavy lifting that lets Williams mine so much here, and he’s failed even to truly examine the basic essence of his subject. By the end, we don’t know any more about the actual nature and concept of “ghost writing” than we do when we pop the film in; the closest we get is McGregor’s sly statement in regard to something as inconsequential (for our part) as his pay, that “Ghosts have feelings too,” a direct quote from Leslie McFarlane, the Canadian writer who created the Hardy Boys under the name Franklin W. Dixon then was quickly swept away from control of the series with many of his books rewritten, since he had no say in their destiny. How nice it would have been if some human consequence for the work McGregor does was approached as more than the source for a couple of one-liners. McFarlane’s books had served their purpose and then were cast aside, their legacy erased. In much the same way, The Ghost Writer is a rich experience while it’s on — but the taste fades rapidly, and it seems a lot of noise and effort committed to very little. But it’s a fun film, an extremely entertaining one, and in many ways that’s enough.

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