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.

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