The Ghost Writer

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As filmmaker Roman Polanski continues to fight extradition to the United States in the wake of his September, 2009 arrest in Switzerland on sex charges that date back to 1977, his film “The Ghost Writer” arrives quietly in theatres. Biography-minded viewers will pore over the ironic parallels between Polanski’s life and the besieged, travel-restricted politician at the center of the movie, but the film’s thrill-seeking agenda rapidly parts company from any construction of possible self-pity cooked up by the 76-year-old director.

Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed character of the title, a scribe-for-hire who eagerly takes a quarter of a million dollar payout to finish former PM Adam Lang’s windy memoirs for publication. The Ghost’s predecessor died under mysterious circumstances, and as soon as he arrives at the austere modernist compound inhabited by Lang and his entourage of power brokers, the overwhelmed replacement realizes that nothing is as it seems and that he is in a bit over his head. Before the Ghost can polish a draft of the book, Lang is accused of war crimes by a former ally and cabinet member, and the household is swept up in a storm of spin, denial, and strategizing.

Smart, calculating, and stylish, “The Ghost Writer” is the best kind of Hitchcock homage. Filled with all sorts of diabolical details that seem to come straight from one of the Master of Suspense’s carefully constructed scripts, Polanski’s film delights in manipulating viewers with a balanced mix of plausible and impossible twists and turns. Close scrutiny threatens to collapse the house of cards, and the jaded will wince (and the faithful will cheer) as the plot machinery dispatches a climactic acrostic to solve a key mystery, but most audience members will eagerly embrace the movie’s expressiveness and intelligibility.

Polanski is just as capable with actors as he is with narrative efficiency, and across the board, “The Ghost Writer” features delicious performances from even the most surprising casting choices. McGregor, who always looks relieved when he is not playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, anchors the film as the initially innocent audience surrogate. Olivia Williams, playing older than her early 40s, tartly embodies the brains behind husband Pierce Brosnan’s Tony Blair-like politician. Movie aficionados will love the sight and sound of legendary Eli Wallach in a succinct, one-scene cameo, and even the surprising inclusion of James Belushi and Kim Cattrall is right on target.

Polanski co-wrote the movie’s script with Robert Harris, whose 2007 novel “The Ghost” is the basis of the movie. “The Ghost Writer” is as conspiratorial and at times outrageous as “Shutter Island,” and just as much fun, as Polanski retains his slightly offbeat sense of humor amidst all the mounting anxiety and dread. Despite its pulpy origins, or perhaps because of them, one can have a blast watching Polanski devise all sorts of ways to reinforce his protagonist’s status as a fading apparition. From the terrific opening scene, in which Polanski visually establishes the double-meaning of the titular occupation via an eerie ferry ride, to the sensational final shot, the filmmaker wastes no opportunity to affirm the precariousness of the anonymous hero’s sense of identity.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/22/10.

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