Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer
R.P. Productions, France 2 Cinéma

STARRING Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach
WRITTEN BY Robert Harris, Roman Polanski
PRODUCED BY Robert Benmussa, Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde
DIRECTED BY Roman Polanski

SHOT BY Paweł Edelman
EDITED BY Hervé de Luze
MUSIC BY Alexandre Desplat
DISTRIBUTED BY Summit Entertainment

Screened 2010-01-29

Polanski co-wrote the script with Richard Harris, adapted from Harris’s 2007 bestseller Ghost – which raised some eyebrows across the Atlantic on that island, where it was called “thinly-veiled.” Here’s what we’ve got: Britain’s former Prime Minister wants to publish his memoirs and in doing so utilizes a ghost writer (the first of many accepted political corruptions). The male writer, of the “regular” politically ignorant ilk, takes the job and is blithely unconcerned that his chair is still warm from his just-dead predecessor. Writer finds himself securely holed up in Politician’s ultra-mod Hague compound. Incidentally – or not? – during Writer’s gig, Politician is being highly publicized for purported war crimes involving advocacy of torture, during which time Writer’s meetings with the former PM become more and more infrequent, yet the attentions of the PM’s wife curiously grow. Despite his desire to remain eternally insouciant, Writer’s agitation grows (but never peaks, I criticize) as he precipitously picks up the secret threads of his predecessor which stretch far into the politician’s past and not inconveniently directly alongside his memoirs (apropos of my unintended alliteration, I now find the technique to be more distracting than anything else, and when deliberate akin to showing off). The question I have is: knowing the danger associated with the political couple’s past – why are they so set on having the damn memoirs published at all? This is the story’s major weak point. In the end, Writer basically pays for his insouciance through a single act which this viewer found to be either a fatal lapse of judgment in the writing of Polanski and Harris, or an intended stroke of intrigue. Unless I hear my answer from the horse’s mouth, I won’t know, but I would sooner guess the former, as it is in keeping with Polanski’s inconsistent curriculum vitae.

For me, Polanski was figured out a while back and it wasn’t terribly difficult. He’s a committed crafter of mise-en-scene, which I love, but it’s become quite clear that the success of his films is reliant on landing the right material – I say landing because sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s important to remember is that Polanski is capable of making a masterpiece, even now, but likely never will again, probably because the process of meeting the right collaborators is considerably easier when you’re a young, rising star full of aesthetic mystique. He’s the sort of person who could titillate somebody like Bob Evans and land the perfect gig, be seen with Sharon Tate, be a figure.. now his status as a figure is little more than one of fun (for examples see Rush Hour 3 and those cancerous news blips) – at least in America. When left to his own devices, his own pen, he is intriguing, intelligent, and lucky enough to be exceptional on rare occasions. So I’ll keep on hoping. I still love watching all of his films because I love to watch him do what he does, utilizing his mature, meticulous, now memorial method of moviemaking (see?). It’ll be a shame when he dies. God-willing he’ll bump into the next Gerard Brach on the Cote d’Azure before then.

The film’s greatest strength lies in its casting, which is pitch perfect – with the possible exception of Tom Wilkinson, whom I find questionable in a very general way. McGregor is our slightly misanthropic, drifting, charming-but-wants-to-leave-the-room ghost writer – perfect. Pierce Brosnan plays Britain’s smarmy former PM – perfect. Kim Cattrall plays his cultivated, sexy, professional blonde mistressecretary – now that’s perfect. And then there’s Olivia Williams as Brosnan’s justifiably bitter wife and political right hand. Throw in two out-of-left-field (but characteristically Polanski) cameos by Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach and we’ve got a super duper ensemble.

Ewan McGregor is the other piece worth discussing. I guess I was wrong – I looked at McGregor, knowing his beginnings, and saw a shrewd closet cynic with perhaps mountains of untapped potential. I’m still waiting for said potential to manifest, and I’m generally left happily sated, but rarely rocked (perhaps he is Polanski’s perfect foil?). Then I remember the gay eccentricities of Moulin Rouge, Velvet Goldmine, and Down With Love (I guess there’s one in every actor) and feel silly for my opinion. I only saw what I wanted to see. I’ll remind you now of the pantheon of talent (in one form or another) he’s worked his at 38 years of age – Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Peter Greenaway, Mira Nair (where he was wasted), Ridley Scott, Tim Burton, George Lucas, Michael Bay, Ron Howard and of course Danny Boyle. It shouldn’t surprise me that he’s a major “movie star” – but it does. I always thought he wanted more – but that’s what I wanted to see. I guess I’ll just have to deal with accepting a big, solid American movie star. You could do worse. But I fear we’ve already seen the heights of McGregor, unless a mid-life crisis makes him realize he hardly challenges himself at all anymore. He’s in the game to play, not to master.

Obligatory summation: Polanski’s subtle missteps again hinder his quality work, but his natural ability is always worth watching.

written by David Ashley

2012-03-21: Read this review for the first time in a while. It’s awful.