The Ghost Writer

by | Aug 9th, 2010 | 5:25PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

A slowly unfolding mystery as chilly and wind-swept gray as The Ghost Writer might be a hard sell in the middle of the bright, loud, rush-bang summer. But the film carefully and masterfully stirs up dark secrets at the intersection of politics and publishing. The result is a solidly executed exercise in intrigue.

In the cinematography documentary Visions of Light, William Fraker, the director of photography on Rosemary’s Baby, describes the film-making genius of director Roman Polanski.* They were setting up a simple shot of Ruth Gordon making a phone call from an apartment bedroom, framed from down the hallway. Polanski told Fraker to move the camera to one side so that only part of Gordon could be seen as she carried on the mysterious call.

The cinematographer didn’t understand why the director was skewing the framing until the final film was screened for an audience. As Gordon moved halfway out of frame while on the phone, the entire audience leaned to their left—even though they were watching a film, on a subconscious level they instinctively wanted to peer around the doorway and see what was going on. Polanski had hooked them in deeper by moving secretive actions off-screen and then obstructing their view.

That same instinctive sense of cinematic obfuscation is on display throughout The Ghost Writer. This is a thriller for thinking folks, in which almost everything that matters happens off screen, somewhere in secret, perhaps in the past, shrouded under the gray clouds of mystery, only glimpsed and hinted at in old photos and unreliable memories.

Haunted by Secrets and Lies

Ewan McGregor is a freelance writer hired to complete work on a former British Prime Minister’s memoirs after the previous “ghost” fell off a ferry and drown on a very dark and stormy night. The ex-PM, Adam Lang, is played by Pierce Brosnan with exactly the aggressively disarming charm and unctuous glad-handing superiority you’d might expect from the actor: Tony Blair with 007′s warm-gunmetal polish. Lang is in political exile—almost literally bunkered down on a dreary Martha’s Vineyard. There Lang is besieged by anti-war protesters and hounded by the International Criminal Court for allegedly authorizing the use of torture in the War on Terror.

Once again, as in The Men Who Stare at Goats and Velvet Goldmine, McGregor is the naïve outsider, the nearly invisible everyman writer and seeker of truths who finds himself slowly entangled and seduced by a nefarious web of secrets and lies. Flanking Lang are his steely wife (Olivia Williams nicely turning drawn and weary into something more covertly threatening) and his assistant/mistress (Kim Cattrall wonderfully playing against type with sharp, piercing smarts on top of her usual sexuality). Within the cold, fortress-like concrete walls of the beach home, the three of them subtly stab at one another with bitter looks and sharp little digs—life-long power players all, their personal is political and their politics are quietly vicious. And clearly someone does not want Lang’s original memoir published.

Based on a novel by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer is about the power of words—words that preserve and encode secrets, pages and books that kill. Much of the film consists of McGregor’s character pouring over manuscripts as the skies around him darken with an almost jaunty portent. Polanski is in no rush—he’s clearly in love with the mystery genre and his mastery of it shows: he lets unease slowly coagulate into tension and then tension build to suspense, right down to the final perfect and perfectly grim ‘70s-style shot.


* This is a straight up review of The Ghost Writer as a film—and the movie is as well-made and gripping as it is because of Roman Polanski’s undeniable film-making talent. Naturally the facts of Polanski’s life will figure into many viewers’ reaction to the film. As with the recent Mel Gibson scandals, this raises the questions of how, when, and where do you separate the art from the artist, or if that is ever possible. And each individual will have to decide to what extent they will or will not support a Polanski film.

The Ghost Writer is on DVD and available for rental from redbox.

24 Responses to “The Ghost Writer

  1. Nick
    Posted on August 9, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Robert Harris is one of my favorite authors. Can’t wait to see if the film lives up to the novel.

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on August 10, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Good but BORING at times.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Ray Watson
    Posted on August 11, 2010 at 6:42 am

    A real snoozer.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Stever B
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 5:10 am

    If you want a good Hitchcockian evening, rent this with no hesitation. Polanski takes his time telling this engrossing story — excellent, excellent film.

  2. Bill
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 5:53 am

    Watching this was a waste of a saturday night

    • Currently 2/5 Stars
    David Webb
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 7:10 am

    This movie was rather boring, I almost shut it off. I did not feel the
    Alfred Hitchcock tone to it. I wonder if the book is better?

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Phyllis B
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 8:08 am

    This was a very well done suspenseful movie with a great ending…what a surprise…I love when the ending is unexpected….Polanski is to be congratulated for creating an entertaining film…the acting is outstanding and each actor gives a really fine performance…I recommend this movie to any fan of this type of film…I will purchase the film for my own collection even though I know the outcome…worth watching again!

  3. Sheri Gillette
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 8:28 am

    The ending was such a disappointment. Movie built up a point where you are trying to figure things out then boom – it’s over. Did have a hint of North by Northwest – just not Alfred Hitchcock quality.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    miranda lopez
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 8:36 am


    • Currently 3/5 Stars
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Solid performances by the actors, within a good mystery story. I did not find it boring. It is worth watching because it is better than most TV fare.

  4. Susan
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 10:09 am

    We really enjoyed this movie. I agree that it wasn’t Hitchcock level, but definitely worth the time. It kept parents’ and a their college-age daughter’s attention.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Zach Anderson
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 10:18 am

    i wish i could rate this movie for less than one star some thing were hard to understand because of all the secrets and most of the movie was a boring waste i felll asleep two seperate times and when i was done and finally shut it off i was thinking that it might be worth the twenty dollars to smash the movie in hopes of saving some poor soul from having to watch it

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 10:45 am

    I am a fan or Robert Harris and of the actors in the movie. Though it had been years since I’d read the book, Polanski did a terrific job of sticking to the novel which I always appreciate. I very much liked the movie.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Having lived in the UK for nearly 10 years, I enjoy British actors, especially McGregor and Brosnan. But this movie was so boring, I felt bad for the cameramen. I felt worse because I could tell my girlfriend was trying to be a sport and watch it with me. She fell asleep more times than I could count (because I was sleep too)….and that was before the halfway point, at which time I ejected the movie. Save your time, and your buck!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Very entertaining, did not miss the extreme car chase, sex or violence normally found in films nowadays. Just a good suspense movie watchable on it’s on merits.

  5. rob
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Good plot but uneven delivery. Some wonderful acting at times, and other times almost wooden. The [SPOILER ALERT] sexual encounter between the writer and the wife was among the most implausible I’ve seen. [END SPOILER] Still I’d have to say that it was at least average and perhaps slightly better.

  6. Susyq
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    This was a really nothing of a movie. A real waste of some good actors. When it was over you sit there and go “huh?”. It never explained what the big deal was and why people were killed to protect “a secret” that didn’t amount to anything.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on August 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Beautiful detail, location, suspense, and sound quality. An artful work.
    Boring? maybe compared to an XBox killing game, but those comments are typical of surface level conditioning. Me, Ill take full ear protection into the next Imax show along with the 3D glasses and a ticket. When will we get enough of desensitizing, full body bombardment? Quality directing and acting doesn’t require over-the-top technology to be appreciated.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Posted on August 18, 2010 at 12:34 am

    slow and boring. suspenseful? nope. figured it out then kept dozing off.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Rich in NJ
    Posted on August 18, 2010 at 9:17 am

    I can understand why this is a love it or hate it movie. Our viewing audience of three was moderately enjoying the suspense, acting, and plot development. Unfortunately, the ending ruined the entire movie for us so it is three thumbs down on The Ghost Writer. I suppose if you love Polanski you will love the movie but I do not think this was equal to his past efforts. Maybe something else in his life was distracting him?

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on August 18, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    one of the best political thrillers ive seen in a while
    bought the book after i saw it.

  7. BB
    Posted on August 18, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I fought to stay awake through the entire movie, and by the end I regretted that I had not just gone to bed. I don’t understand why this received so many critical accolades.

    • Currently 1/5 Stars
    Linda Lee
    Posted on August 19, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    zzzzzzz……rather boring story with a anti-climatic ending. I felt cheated out of something that never developed but I don’t know what exactly. The men behind the curtain could have stayed there.

    Posted on October 3, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    THis movie was great,so underratedI think people who said this movie sucks prefer to watch dumb movies with big explosions(michael bay fans)polansi come back to hollywood please!!