Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer *** ½
Directed by:
Roman Polanski.
Written By: Robert Harris & Roman Polanski based on the novel by Harris.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), James Belushi (John Maddox), Tom Wilkinson (Paul Emmett), Eli Wallach (Vineyard old man), Robert Pugh (Robert Rycart).

The Ghost Writer is a perfect example of a film made great by the direction of a master filmmaker. It is a film that requires a number of illogical plot twists, that leave gaping plot holes, that would normally undo a film. At least one of the major characters is completely miscast, and perhaps even the lead doesn’t find the right note for the movie. And yet Roman Polanski’s direction of the film is so superb at each and every step along the way, that I remained completely engrossed in the film from beginning to end. The film reminded me of a Hitchcock thriller, in which the director delights in playing the audience like a piano. Polanski pulls that off brilliantly in this film, and it isn’t until after it over do we start to question what we have actually seen.

The movie stars Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer who mainly writes the biographies of celebrities and spoiled brats. He is brought in to finish the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), obviously based on Tony Blair. The previous ghost writer has just died in a mysterious accident on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang is holed up to try and complete the memoirs. They are a complete mess, and an utter bore – nothing at all like the publisher expected when they paid Lang a record salary to complete them. They wanted an inside look at the war on terror, and got a bland history. Now, Lang is being investigated by the International Criminal Court because of an alleged document that shows he ordered the kidnapping of three British Nationals in Pakistan to be handed over to the CIA for questioning. Something about the job doesn’t sit right with McGregor, but the money is too good to pass up. So off he goes to Martha’s Vineyard. He should have stayed in London.

I mentioned I have a few problems with the film – which keep it from being a truly great film – so let’s get them out of the way right now. I’m not sure I ever real believed Ewan McGregor in the role of The Ghost, and I think it was because he was miscast. The Ghost Writer in the movie is supposed to be a character who kind of fades into the background – who no one really takes seriously, and everyone manipulates to get what they want from him. McGregor does a good job at being pulled in different directions, but the movie requires him at once to be too stupid to see how he’s being played, and yet smart enough to piece everything together. What I think was required is an actor who is better at fading into the background than McGregor – who always stands out. Although it perhaps would have made some things harder, I almost think someone like Toby Jones would have been perfect. The bigger problem, casting wise, however is Kim Cattrall as Amelia Bly, Land’s assistant. She seems to chipper, too full of fake smiles, and she gives the game away early – we know something more sinister than what appears to be happening is bubbling under the surface. The story also expects the audience to make a few rather large leaps in logic – especially during the film’s final act – that, as with the novel by Robert Harris that the film is based on, I never was quite able to make myself believe.

And yet, I find myself not really caring about these admitted flaws in the film. As the film moves along, you shunt them to the side, and concentrate on the considerable skill behind this movie. For one thing, it does contain two of the very best performances I have seen so far this year. As Lang, Pierce Brosnan gives perhaps the best performance of his career. He is the consummate politician – charming, likable, able to make you believe him even when he lying right to your face. As things in his life start to go wrong, he starts to unravel however – and becomes more angry and vengeful. His final speech – about Rendition, and whether or not the government has the right to hand over their own citizens to another country for questioning, is so powerful you may not just end up agreeing with him. Brosnan, who so often in his career has coasted on his charm, here really delves deep and delivers a wonderful performance. Even better though is Olivia Williams as his wife, who is sick and tired of Lang and his whining, his adultery, his, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Williams has been delivering great performances for a number of years now (stretching back at least as far as Rushmore in 1998), but rarely has she been given such a meaty role as this one, and she doesn’t disappoint. Great small performances by Eli Wallach, Tom Wilkinson and Robert Pugh help to fill in the background.

But the real star of the movie is Polanski, who directs this thriller with the same sort of confidence he has brought to his best thrillers. The movie opens with a haunting shot of a ferry pulling into port, and its giant nose lifting up – as if it is going to swallow the audience whole. And the direction of the movie never steps wrong right up to the final shot – which is even more haunting. Polanski has always been a great director, and in The Ghost Writer he shows why. He directs with confidence and skill – and is able to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes even when, like me, they knew what was coming. This is the type of directing we often saw in the studio era – where great film artists were given material that may have been somewhat beneath them, but they made a great film anyhow.

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