‘The Ghost Writer’: Puppets and puppeteers

February 16, 2010

It’s always feast or famine: months of movies like “Dear John,” “Valentine’s Day,” “Leap Year” – and then, in one week, new films by both Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.


Like Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is based on a popular novel – Robert Harris’ “The Ghost.” Like “Shutter Island,” “Ghost Writer” is set mainly on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. And like Scorsese, Polanski uses solid commercial fiction to make a movie that chills and provokes.


In “The Ghost Writer,” Ewan McGregor plays the title character, a commercially successful ghost writer (who is never named and only ever referred to as “the ghost”), who is hired to help complete the memoirs of Great Britain’s latest prime minister. His name is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and, though he came to office as a charismatic breath of fresh air (after years of grinding Thatcherism), he’s still controversial for bending over and letting the American president have his way with him, in terms of joining in the rush to an unnecessary war in Iraq. Any resemblance to Tony Blair is wholly intentional.


Cajoled into taking the job by his agent (and a big stack of money), the ghost finds himself talked into a rush job: The publisher has sunk $10 million into Lang’s memoirs and the deadline is a month away. But the first writer – Lang’s long-time top aide – committed suicide after finishing a highly unsatisfactory first draft. It’s up to the ghost to meet with Lang (who is holed up in a compound on an island off Cape Cod), flesh it out and rewrite the manuscript to make it readable.


The ghost apparently enjoys a much more leisurely style of working because he seems very put upon by the whole thing. He is, after all, a writer – an artist – even if his art is massaging the prose of others or even putting words in their mouths.


He’s also a cynic, having done this job often enough to know the difference between the grand ideas that most of his clients put into their books and the way they actually live their lives. As the saying goes, no man is a hero to his valet.


The ghost seems both amused and crabby at the security measures surrounding the first draft of Lang’s memoir, particularly once he has a chance to read it. For one thing, the book itself is both dull and badly written. For another, there seems to be little that could cause a national-security ripple, certainly nothing that warrants the kind of precautions that Lang’s people are taking.


But before he has a real chance to work with Lang – to get material that would actually encourage readers to plow through the entire book – Lang comes under siege in the press and elsewhere. A leaked memo suggests that Lang may have approved the extraordinary rendition of two suspected terrorists, who were arrested in the U.K., then shipped out by the CIA to an undisclosed location, where they were subsequently tortured. One of them, in fact, died.


Before he can respond, the charges escalate and Lang finds himself the focus of an investigation by the World Court in the Hague, which is threatening him with charges of war crimes. Lang splits from the island refuge to go to Washington, to try to shore up his reputation while fighting extradition. Which leaves the ghost to twiddle his thumbs and, eventually, to decide to pack it in.


But as he’s emptying drawers in his room at the compound (which served as quarters for his late predecessor), he comes across a hidden file of photographs, taped to the underside of a drawer. Which, of course, is when things start to get interesting.


How interesting? Well, interesting you should ask. Because while Polanski cranks up the tension – with sharp-edged encounters, mysterious figures in chase cars, a clue hunt guided by a preprogrammed GPS and more – he rarely gives you more than the ghost himself has to work with. The ghost is out of his depth and knows it, yet keeps moving forward toward .. what?


And the people he meets and deals with – from Lang’s alternately strident and seductive wife (Olivia Williams) to an obscure academic (Tom Wilkinson) with a demeanor that can’t seem to decide between cordial and frosty to a former member of Lang’s cabinet (Robert Pugh) with an axe to grind – all obviously know more than they’re saying. Either they’re deliberately misleading him or simply blowing smoke.


But the ghost doesn’t know which, and neither does the audience. He gets pieces of it, makes guesses at it, seems to have it surrounded – and yet it still eludes his grasp. And he doesn’t have super-powers – he isn’t required to fight his way out of any situations, nor is he given the Jack Bauer treatment (captured and tortured, only to escape with his life). He’s a writer: soft, scared, barely physical enough to ride a bike.


“The Ghost Writer” has some of the same elements as “Chinatown,” perhaps Polanski’s most perfect film. It features a hero who is never quite as smart as he believes – because he’s looking at only a small section of the puzzle, without realizing that there is more to it than he can take in. The script, by Polanski and novelist Harris, does offer clues – but it resolutely puts us in the ghost’s shoes.


It’s a different kind of character for McGregor, who plays the ghost as a slightly entitled sort – a guy who knows he makes a living as a kind of literary vampire but still wants to convince himself that he could do something else if he chose.


Brosnan captures the politician perfectly: charismatic on demand, chilly when he doesn’t need to be charming, much less lofty than his image always suggests. Williams has just the right blend of resentment and reserve as the wife who believes she’s being elbowed out of the inner circle at a crucial moment.


“The Ghost Writer” can be frustrating – because you only know as much as the main character right up until the final scene. And when it all becomes clear, all the jagged edges go away and the film comes into focus as the well-honed thriller it has been all along. 

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