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.