The Ghost Writer ****
Starring Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), and James Belushi (John Maddox). Produced by Roman Polanski, Christoph Fisser, and Alain Sarde. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Written by Roman Polanski and Robert Harris. Directed by Roman Polanski. Based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris.
The Ghost Writer is an almost perfect thriller, one where you can immediately tell is incredibly sharp and focused. It’s a different kind of thriller than one audiences might be more accustom to. Thanks to such contemporary efforts like the Bournefilms or something along that ilk, audiences might be more familiar with the kind of thriller that moves at a breakneck pace, never letting up, with such frenetic photography that almost confuses the viewer as to what they are actually seeing. It is the definition of a “thriller” in the most literal sense, but fortunately Roman Polanski’s latest harkens back to a more classical time when thrillers were deliberate and tightly wound, such as Charade starring Cary Grant or The French Connection starring Gene Hackman.
Roman Polanski is a premiere filmmaker, who specializes in creating films that put you into the mind of someone with little control of their surroundings or situation. In his years superbly crafting films he has almost created the “paranoid outsider thriller”, and if you look at his impressive litany of works, ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to his masterpiece Chinatown, he has this uncanny ability at creating movies where the lead character is always in way over his head. The Ghost Writer is another film in that long tradition, so effortlessly crafted that one can’t help but marvel at the inner workings of one of this year’s best films.
The Ghost Writer follows Ewan McGregor, who is never named in the film (a clever choice by the writers, Polanski himself along with Robert Harris, adapting his own novel) instead being listed as “The Ghost” in the credits. That’s an apt name, considering that McGregor’s character in the film is a ghost writer, which is defined by someone who comes in and revises a work of writing without ever receiving credit or acknowledgment. He is being coaxed by his agent to ghost write a novel… but not just any ‘ole novel, this one comes in the form of Adam Lang‘s memoirs. Lang is the newly retired British prime minister, played flawlessly and even empathetically by Piece Brosnan. The magnitude of the situation doesn’t quite come into fold until McGregor’s “Ghost”, having already agreed to take the job (for a hefty sum of money), finds out that Adam Lang is being investigated for war crimes.
The film is a slow burn type of thriller, and we follow the story completely from the Ghost’s perspective. The deeper he gets into the world of Lang, the deeper we get, and the more he finds out, the more we find out. It’s a deft storytelling tactic which really allows us to discover the inner intricacies of the plot and story just as they unfold for McGregor’s character. He slowly and gradually begins to realize just what exactly he got himself into, and as he learns more the tangled web of lies and deception begin to unfold themselves as McGregor’s character gets deeper into the mysteries that surround Lang’s charges. The film has been talked about for loosely adapting the life of real former prime minister Tony Blair, but Brosnan doesn’t play Lang like a Blair-doppelganger, and instead imbues him as this constantly frustrated, very flawed and human politician who we slowly learn is less of a political idealist and more of someone who stumbled — either by accident or by intention — upon his political life. Even though Lang is accused in the film of some pretty horrendous things, you end up at the end emphasizing and even sympathizing for Lang, which is strongly due to Brosnan’s multi-faceted performance.
Like any good thriller, nothing is ever how it seems and the more McGregor’s character sinks deeper into trying to solve the mystery of Lang’s accusations the deeper into trouble he gets. It is so refreshing, though, to see such a tightly focused thriller that is as incredibly detailed on story as it is character. As the story tightly winds up its narrative screws as it nears its climax, you are so engrossed into the finer details of the story and you are so absolutely tagging along for McGregor’s journey that when those inevitable twists hit you, they hit you hard and you kick yourself for having not seen them earlier. Unlike a lot of thrillers, such as the ones that come from M. Night Shyamalan for example, none of the twists seem preposterous and none of them seem like they just came out of left-field. In fact, The Ghost Writer rewards the viewer by creating such a tight plot that it makes you want to go back and watch the entire film all over again. Not to see something that you might have missed — but to see something again and realize you’re seeing something on an entirely different level than you thought you were before.
At the end of the day, the film is surprisingly simple for such a fantastic thriller, but that’s because the plot is not overbearing with needlessly convoluted plot contrivances. Roman Polanski is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and with that experience comes a great knowledge on how to properly stage a thriller. Sure, those Bourne films are great fun, but there’s nothing more satisfying than having the patience to watch a brilliantly constructed story unfold right before your eyes. With excellent performances from the entire cast (with a particular shout out to Olivia Williams, who does a splendid job as Lang’s unhappy wife), an incredibly tight and focused script, and some stellar direction once again from Polanski, The Ghost Writer is unequivocally one of this year’s best films. Also, if Alexandre Desplat doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for his score for this film, then there is truly something wrong with the Academy.