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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Ghost Writer (aka The Ghost) (review)

Mightier Than the Sword

This is what I am profoundly grateful for: Roman Polanski’s elegant, gripping thriller The Ghost Writer is not about teenaged girls, not in any way at all. No teenage girls whatsoever appear in the film. Though it is about crimes of many sorts, none of them have anything to do with rape, and even though cinematic violence in general — not in this film, but overall across the movie spectrum, from grossout comedies to torture porn to gritty police dramas — tends toward particularly sexualized violence against women, there is nothing of the sort here.
Which means my conscience is clear in recommending that you not miss this fantastic film. Polanski’s ongoing, decades-long legal troubles — and the propensities they have revealed about the man — so recently in the news again, make it hard to embrace him as a human being. But with The Ghost Writer (called simply The Ghost in the U.K.), he proves, once again, that he is among the most accomplished of filmmakers working today. Working from a novel by Robert Harris [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], who adapted the screenplay with the director, Polanksi (Oliver Twist, The Pianist) has crafted a film that is gorgeously simple to look at yet deeply involving in its story, visually minimalist and populated with characters who enthrall you even when you’re not sure if you like them.

The opening moments of the film are so starkly graceful that I can’t stop thinking about how cleanly Polanski drops us into the middle of a sordid tale of personal and political deception that spans decades, nations, and crimes from the most intimate to the most globally influential. An empty car sits on a ferry crossing gray New England waters on a blustery winter’s night. Horns blare as other vehicles must go around it to disembark. Then the car waits alone as a tow truck scoops it up off the ferry deck, setting off its alarm. Then the car sits, surrounded by flashing police lights, on the dock. Then it’s morning, and a body has washed up on a beach.

There hasn’t been a word of dialogue the whole time. And already the film is positively dripping with intrigue.

Cut to Ewan McGregor (Amelia, The Men Who Stare at Goats) in a fancy London restaurant, discussing a project with his agent: The former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan: Remember Me, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), who left office in disgrace, is looking for a new ghost writer for his autobiography, and Ewan should totally take the job. Professional banter bounces back and forth for a few minutes, during which — if you’re not paying close attention — you may miss the little mention about how it was Lang’s previous ghost writer who washed up dead on that New England beach. That sense of the impersonal ominous that creeps up over that opening bit with the ferry and the car now rains down on a guy we like: and you almost feel disappointed when he takes that ghosting job, because you know it’ll only get him into trouble. Which it does.

The Ghost Writer is hardly groundbreaking cinema, but it is an example of something that’s increasingly rare these days: a popcorn movie for grownups. For all its sleek sophistication, there’s something also wonderfully old-school about it, in the underlying attitude that movies can be ridiculously entertaining in a preposterous way — Writer crashes into a wonderfully ludicrous ending — but still not dumbed down to the level of adolescent interest. As totally riveting as the scene in which McGregor’s writer follows the GPS directions unwittingly left in a borrowed car, to a thrilling conclusion, this is not a car chase to please anyone looking for squealing tires and exploding police cars. The horrors and plausibilities of the intricacies of the plot are not concerned with ticking-terrorist-bomb countdowns but with more complex — yet just as terrifying and timely — matters of international affairs of state. Yeah, you can snicker at the turn of events that Polanski underscores as if it were a personal injury to himself: Lang finds he cannot leave his hidey-hole of exile in New England and return home, thanks to legal problems and details of international jurisdiction and such. But this is the stuff of grownup drama, and requires that you be someone well informed about what’s going on in the world if you’re to appreciate the depths of cleverness in the story.

It’s even telling how McGregor’s character, the hero of the film, never gets a name: he’s just “the ghost” or “the writer.” He’s not anonymous, exactly, and he’s not keeping secrets… but he’s pretty much the only character onscreen who isn’t. It makes for a fascinating conundrum of cinematic ruses and trickeries that continue to haunt you even after the film is over.

Watch Ghost online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • aquila6

    Sorry, but as long as this dirtbag continues to avoid serving his prison sentence, I will not watch any Roman Polanski movie — and I will recommend to others that they do the same.

  • Sorry, but as long as this dirtbag continues to avoid serving his prison sentence, I will not watch any Roman Polanski movie — and I will recommend to others that they do the same.

    I avoided this film in the theatres because of the Polanski status as a fugitive. It unsettled me and my wife and I were uncomfortable contributing to the success of his endeavors.

    But… one man can’t make a film. And while headlining directors are unjustly compensated way more than their crew or actors, those crew and actors deserve recognition. So I will Netflix this film, and buy it if I like it enough, because Polanski is not the only one who will benefit.

  • aquila6

    But… one man can’t make a film.

    So, you’d go see a movie directed by Mel Gibson?

    This is the double standard of Hollywood — a man like Roman Polanski is actually convicted of committing horrible crimes against an underaged girl and skips out of the country and he’s celebrated as an auteur and people continue to work with him. But someone like Mel Gibson merely says some horrible things (which isn’t a crime — yet) and suddenly he’s persona non grata in Hollywood.

    If these folks had any integrity, they’d refuse to work with Polanski. Obviously, they don’t. Anyone who pays to watch his films is essentially condoning what he did.

  • Lisa

    I’m a proud pitchforker for Polanski. I’d string that fucker up. In saying that, this was not a bad film, although the ending made me laugh out loud.

  • Nate

    If these folks had any integrity, they’d refuse to work with Polanski. Obviously, they don’t. Anyone who pays to watch his films is essentially condoning what he did.

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t this filmed before the allegations came out?

    About Mel Gibson, I’d still watch his films as, like South Park admitted, he’s still one of the better filmmakers out there. (And I’m a Jew by birth)

  • aquila6

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t this filmed before the allegations came out?

    He was convicted (or would have been, if he hadn’t done a runner) in 1978. Technically, he’s not in exile because he’s a French citizen — but he can still be extradited to the US if he goes to countries that have extradition treaties with the US. That the Swiss recently let him go because of a technicality shows how far the corruption in the service of a famous individual goes.

  • Barb

    For those interested in the Blu-ray version, the US release is using a flip format (Blu-ray on one side and DVD on another). The UK release has the normal disc format which I’m opting for instead.

  • Ide Cyan

    I saw the movie (didn’t pay for it — had a free pass to an advance screening), and while it was aesthetically well-done, well-acted, etc.; it left a bad aftertaste of misogyny.


    As a story à clef, the meaning of it all would be to blame Cherie Blair for Tony’s part in the latest Gulf war.

  • Lisa

    Cherie’s smarter than Tony – she coulda pulled it off…

  • MaryAnn


    As a story à clef, the meaning of it all would be to blame Cherie Blair for Tony’s part in the latest Gulf war.

    While there are obvious parallels in the story to the real world, I think the ending goes it far beyond reality that it can’t be considered serious commentary on the real world. At least not to as specific a parallel as that. If anything, Lang bears more resemblance to Bush, not Blair.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I’m philosophically opposed to the concept of boycotts. I think they’re generally ineffective, often impossible to enforce, fundamentally oligarchic in nature, and can lead to some troubling moral issues when it turns into “Economic vigilantism”.

    People can be genius in certain areas, and monsters in others. I think it’s a personal decision, not a moral one, as to whether or not we can appreciate the product, even if we despise the individual. Illegal behaviour should be punished by the courts, not by the market, and to that end, I absolutely support the extradition of Polanski. I think the preferential treatment the wealthy (including celebrities) receive in the legal process is certainly a problem, but I think that’s something that needs to be fixed by legislation, not economic boycott.

    In practical terms, I probably would buy or watch a Mel Gibson movie, if he managed to make one that was entertaining, and not racist or sexist. I would also make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I figure that would have more direct impact on racial issues than the sliver of the money that goes from my purchase to Mel Gibson’s charity of choice.

  • Lisa

    yeah the ending of it is excessively silly also the bit that happens off-screen but I think Lang is pretty close to Blair, considering how tight the author of the book used to be with him.

  • RyanT

    Just saw eat a couple of days ago and I’m not exactly sure what to think of the film. What I do know is the scenes with Olivia Williams and Ewan McGregor were my favorites.

  • Cam


    I’m going to leave this here. I can’t support Polanski.

  • Aaron

    As I’ve written before,I enjoy your writing style MaryAnn, appreciate the way you look at things and often agree with your opinions on movies.

    However, I will not watch anything ever again made by that narcissistic, perpetually smirking, child raping scumfuck. And shame on the actors who work for him.

  • mishem

    I wonder what made the author start the article in the way he did. Where did he see “teenage girls” in a Polanski movie, except Tess? The sheer inanity of all media allegations is shocking. If you want to know what really happened, read the documents, for God’s sake, read the transcripts and the medical reports, not their distorted representation in American press. All materials are available for everyone who wants to think by himself, not to be manipulated by slanderous media. I understand that it’s hard to part with a 33-year-long tradition of this particular session of witch-hunt, but my God, will you Americans ever grow up?

  • mishem

    Sorry, the author of the article is a woman, so it’s “she” in the first two sentences of my previous post.

  • MaryAnn

    Mishem, Polanski pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old girl. He does not deny he committed this crime. “Allegations”? What the fuck?

  • bitchen frizzy

    Time needs to pass. Once Polanski has been dead for a while, people will find it easier to separate the criticism of his work from criticism of the person.

  • OMFG this movie is really, really, really dull. With great suspense, and some moments of extraordinarily bad writing. I am bored, yet find myself still watching…even though I feel like I’m wasting hours of my life I could be doing something more productive in, like washing dishes, or turning off the overhead fan, or folding laundry.

    Cinematography’s nice.

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