Monday, April 5, 2010

Polanski Meets Hitchcock

The Ghost Writer is a gray film, its colors cold, washed out, even tired. Its people tend that way as well. As the film begins, we see cars driving around another car abandoned on a ferry. This is accomplished calmly, without rancor, establishing that we are nowhere near an urban center like New York City. Next we see a body, fully clothed, lapped by cold gray waves on a shoreline.

We soon learn that the car and the body pertain to the ‘suicide’ of one Michael McAra, the last and now late ghost writer for the voluminous memoirs of Adam Lang, former Prime Minister of Britain.

In directing The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski channels Alfred Hitchcock as well as his composer Alexandre Desplat’s delicious score channels Bernard Hermann. Result: A terrific thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock’s black-and-white era. The screenplay is by Polanski and Robert Harris based on the latter’s novel. Whether a political thriller or a suspense tale with “Politics” as the MacGuffin, The Ghost Writer is engrossing and stunning, taut and suspenseful. The actors are quiet, intense, naturalistic without slowing the pace. Rages have meaning from controlled people. Violence -- even talk of violence -- is as shocking here as in real life. The Ghost Writer leaves questions in the mind and chilly images in the mind’s eye.

Pierce Brosnan plays Adam Lang, the Tony Blairish ex-Prime Minister of Britain, and a man in dire need of a ghost writer for his memoirs. Brosnan ages like fine single malt whiskey; he’s much more interesting now than in the days of "Remington Steele" and his 007, which he clearly demonstrated in The Matador. His true mettle has developed as have those fine lines empowering this mature actor. He’s fun, he’s sleazy, he’s broken. Brosnan has distilled himself into my “see him in anything except Mama Mia” category. Here his drearily familiar ex-Prime Minister of a drearily familiar U.K. is sliding into the terribly dreary and depressing here and now as he tries to enter the private phase of his life, once those dratted memoirs are written. The world politics that made it to the papers in the last decade are in this story, and the players are very tired.

Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang, wife of the ex-Prime Minister, is the mystery she ought to be. She’s cold, she’s passionate, she’s angry, strong, brittle – everything but passive. Williams, too, improves with age – although not in a mellow manner. Williams’ Ruth is not a traditional political wife – she is assuredly an equal to her screen husband. She drives and advises him. If Adam Lang is in any part guilty of anything of which he’s accused in this story, Ruth Lang is his equal partner in that as well.

An initially unrecognizable Kim Cattrall plays Amelia Bly, right-hand to the ex-PM and whatever else he needs, adding to the tension of an unhappy household. Cattrall is the cool to cold prim one – what Olivia Williams usually plays. I enjoyed the change.

Ewan McGregor is the Ghost Writer. That’s it. He doesn’t have a name. He is the slate on which everyone else writes. His new employers treat him as a lesser being, there to serve – as indeed he is. The bits of manuscript we hear as he reads the assignment are quite dreadful. They need him, yet only to polish, slicken. Writer as housekeeper. Ghost writing appears to be the least appealing job a writer can have. He introduces himself to Adam Lang as “your ghost.” He’s already given up. Of course, the choice of this Ghost Writer is suspect in itself – apparently this Englishman is apolitical and barely cognizant of his own country’s involvement in recent world events. Perfect fodder for politicians and publicists to use and mold. It would seem an obvious way to impart information to the audience, but it’s done well.

Those are the primary characters. Time: Now. Place: An isolated island along the New England coast, requiring a ferry for access. On said island an equally isolated beach house with fantastic windows. The house is on loan from the ex-PM’s American publisher. Adam Lang, ex-PM of the U.K. (an island nation), has a wife as British as he is, an American lawyer, an American publisher, an American chief of staff, and an American hideout from the Press and the World on an American island. These facts barely give us pause as we are directed to focus on the setting.

This setting provides the opportunity for glorious cinematography. Blacks, whites, and all the grays in between dominate this film despite the fact that it is in color. It also gives us the opportunity to see the other view of this spectacular vacation home: Through the windows we see the caretaker (husband of the cook, of course) attempting to sweep the deck clean of the beach detritus, which the wind promptly re-deposits. These delightful scenes within scenes can bear more than one interpretation, but my favorite is that even where there is no upstairs, there will always be a downstairs. A masterly touch.

As pieces of the ex-PM’s personal hell unfold and ramifications of his political acts and choices reveal a tarnished legacy, his Ghost Writer is less and less a clean slate. He discovers a writer’s drive for truth, investigating almost against his will. The anonymous Ghost Writer is the point-of-view character, and although we know next to nothing about him, we are on his side.

The story's build is lovely. Step by step, it is as unforced as the lowering skies of this overcast northern coast, casting shadows over everyone and everything.

A nameless Englishman accosts the Ghost Writer in his hotel bar. Reporters appear the next morning, forcing the Ghost Writer to move into the ultramodern vacation house – into the room of Mike McAra, the last Ghost Writer. Of course some of that writer’s research is hidden in the room and found by the new Ghost Writer. The past will always bite the present players in the ass.

David Rintoul is excellent as that nameless Englishman we first met in the Ghost Writer’s quaint but tomblike hotel. He is revealed as an ex-army man with a bone to pick with Lang’s government. Each of Rintoul’s appearances builds tension in us and the Ghost Writer as we learn more. Sheltering from a not-at-all sudden storm, the Ghost Writer meets an old man who’d lived on the island for half a century. This device was the most blatant in the film. The information imparted by said old man was vital to the Ghost Writer’s collection of facts and suspicions regarding the last ghost writer. Nonetheless, the manner of providing the information was surprisingly clumsy. We forgive it largely because of the surprise appearance of Eli Wallach as the old man

I assume I did not read much about this film, because I didn’t expect the additional pleasure of seeing Tom Wilkinson as an American professor both Ruth and Adam knew in their university days. Timothy Hutton is a subdued yet crass American attorney to the British ex-PM, and Jim Belushi is the brash and bald American publisher. The ghost writer’s agent is smarmily played by Jon Bernthal.

When it comes to political sophistication, Roman Polanski is to Alfred Hitchcock as the Marx Brothers are to the Three Stooges. The Ghost Writer’s political MacGuffin brought to mind Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent as well as The Secret Agent. The politics in each are topical, emotional, yet broad enough to allow the films to work just fine in the decades following their original release dates. After all, there’s really nothing new under the sun or clouds. In Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and even more so in The Secret Agent, news travels very slowly. In our times and in The Ghost Writer, too much information spreads too quickly, like a jumbled game of “telephone.” No truth will ever be culled from voluminous manuscripts or 12-second sound bytes.

The film is executed excellently by its cast, filmed beautifully by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, scored to perfection by Alexandre Deplat, and succinctly edited by Hervé de Luze.

This film kept me tense despite the occasional dark chuckle, gasping where appropriate (and maneuvered), and actually surprised me a few times. I like intelligent films that respect their audiences, and The Ghost Writer is one. For fear of lessening a single moment of suspense, that’s all I’m going to say on the matter to those who have yet to see it. As Horvendile said in his blog -- -- let’s talk for a few hours after you see this movie. Followed by a marathon of 1930s Hitchcock films.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Need to read Harris' novel....

1 comment:

  1. Finally read Harris' novel -- moves as swiftly as the film, almost scene for scene the same until the last quarter. The differences all make sense in terms of jumping from page to screen. Of course that gorgeous last scene of the film could not be in the book. But say no more. At any rate, I enjoyed the book so much I've already bought another of his novels.