Friday, March 5, 2010

Ghost Writer

By Elise Nakhnikian

Like its title character, an unnamed man hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a retired British prime minister, Roman Polanski’s latest film is a bit of a ghost itself, fading away in front of our eyes.

The ghost writer is another of Ewan McGregor’s quietly angst-ridden antiheroes, a man more used to watching others than to being watched. When he’s tapped to rewrite a bland memoir ghostwritten for retired prime minister Adam Lang, (Pierce Brosnan), it looks like he’s come into some luck at last. “Two hundred and fifty thousand for one month’s work on a manuscript that’s already written!” burbles his agent.

But that elation barely lasts an hour before things go south. People threaten the writer, the prime minister gets testy when questioned, and the bunker-like atmosphere at the PM’s luxe beach house gets so tense that our man starts to wonder about the ghost who wrote the first draft – and lost the job when he washed up dead on the beach.

Soon he’s using all his investigative skills to find out what his predecessor learned about Lang’s past that might have gotten him killed. When the PM is accused of war crimes by a political rival, the writer’s rush to get the book done on a tight deadline turns even more urgent.

Robert Harris, who wrote the book the movie is based on and cowrote the screenplay with Polanski, used Tony Blair as a model for Lang, a charmer who followed the U.S. president into Iraq. The crime he’s accused of is colluding with the CIA to hand over suspected terrorists to be tortured and killed, and the explanation given for why he did so plays into our most cynical – or maybe realistic – notions about the real motives behind the wars that politicians pump up with such flowery speeches. There’s a certain grim satisfaction in that for those of us who never believed the reasons our government gave for occupying Iraq.

In the Loop, another fictional exploration of what got Britain into Iraq, took that ball and ran it into the end zone, but Ghost Writer runs out of juice.

Alexandre Desplat’s scratchy-sounding, agitated score has to do too much of the work of creating a sense of dread, infusing color into several scenes where not much else is happening. The dense sense of suspense and mystery established early on just fades away, turning into a wispy series of chase scenes and talky confrontations. Even the big reveal at the end has been hinted at so broadly in advance that it – or anyhow its method of discovery – feels anticlimactic.

There are a few nice riffs on American culture and politics, like the writer’s painfully quaint hotel, with its self-consciously costumed desk clerk, or the sanctimonious ad he finds on the Internet for a Halliburton-like global conglomerate. I felt Polanski’s hand there, but not in enough other places.

The main exception is the lead character’s sense of claustrophobic entrapment, something most of Polanski’s protagonists share – presumably with him as well as each other. (For those who don’t know, Polanski grew up in the Warsaw ghetto in WWII, and his mother was killed in the Holocaust. He has also done time under the bell jar of fame, first after his second wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family and then again after his own arrest on charges of sexual assault and subsequent trial. He was arrested again on that charge last year, decades after fleeing the U.S. in mid-trial, and he edited the film while under house arrest.)

The writer’s growing sense of isolation and nerve-shot vulnerability is the most vivid thing in the movie. Inside Lang’s luxurious prison of a house, too many people with too many agendas keep bumping up against each other, galvanized every so often by one of the ceaseless news reports on the charges against the ex-pol. There’s no relief outside either. The relentless rain paints the streets the same gray as the concrete walls of Lang’s home, and the island’s thick foliage turns roads into tunnels.

It’s all very artfully done – even a mediocre Polanski movie has a lot going for it. But in the end, Ghost Writer’s whole world feels like Lang’s house: handsome but cold, and a bit underfurnished.

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