Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ghost Writer: Clearly risky

The Ghost Writer (2010) • View trailer for The Ghost Writer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief violence, profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.10
Buy DVD: The Ghost Writer • Buy Blu-Ray: The Ghost Writer (Single-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

This one's more Hitchcock than many Hitchcock films.

The Ghost Writer looks, sounds and feels like the thrillers Hitch made back in the 1950s, when the Master of Suspense was at his prime. Director Roman Polanski's new drama must be deliberate homage, because it includes many of the same elements: unsettling production design, an isolated setting that gives the story an oddly timeless aspect  despite plot elements that are as contemporary as last month's newspaper headlines  and a moody orchestral score, by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), which sounds like the work Bernard Herrmann did for Hitchcock in (for example) North by Northwest.
After accepting an assignment to edit and enhance the ghosted memoirs of a
controversial former British prime minister, our somewhat guileless hero
(Ewan McGregor) is dismayed to discover that all work must be done within
the locked and heavily guarded confines of his subject's isolated home.
Before long, the job takes on even more sinister overtones...

Best of all, The Ghost Writer is slickly adapted from a thriller by Robert Harris  who worked on the screenplay with Polanski  a journalist-turned-novelist who also wrote Enigma, which became an intelligent and vastly under-appreciated film in 2001. I've not yet read The Ghost, but after seeing this film, the book just hit the top of my pending pile.

The premise is beguiling: A successful British writer (Ewan McGregor) is offered the job of ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a controversial former British prime minister. Initially, the assignment isn't all that appealing to our protagonist ... who, true to his profession, never is named in this film. He's more than a little disturbed by the knowledge that his predecessor wound up dead, apparently having fallen off a ferry and drowned.

Such concerns are eased by the impressively huge salary.

Or maybe not. Our "ghost" discovers that he's expected to complete the work within four quick weeks, and that he must fly across the Atlantic that very night, in order to spend as much time as possible with Lang, currently staying at an isolated, heavily guarded compound on an island off the Eastern seaboard. Worse yet, the huge typed manuscript cannot leave the office in Lang's home, where our hero is expected to do all his work.

Things get even murkier once we meet Lang and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and staff, notably the former prime minister's come-hither personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). Marital discord and sexual tension hover over this home like a shroud, and the oddly idiosyncratic cook and gardener just add to the overall tension.

This is vintage Polanski, of course: Every character, no matter how inconsequential or seemingly innocent, is given a suspicious cast and uncomfortably invasive presence. Every line delivery becomes pregnant with possible menace; every casual remark seems laden with unsettling implications.

Then the other shoe drops, with the breaking news that Lang has been accused of illegally seizing suspected terrorists in Pakistan, and handing them over for torture by the CIA: a claim that, if true, would make him a war criminal under UK and international law. With reporters and protesters now camped outside the compound gates, the prospects of editing and refining a 4-inch-thick manuscript look increasingly unlikely.

And yet that remains the job, even though Lang seems unwilling to make himself available.

The resulting dynamic feels very much like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca  memorably filmed by Hitchcock in 1940  where a similarly unnamed heroine gradually succumbs to the belief that everybody in the household is against her, and that circumstances are wholly beyond her control. As the old saying goes, feeling irrationally paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

Bearing that in mind  and recognizing that McGregor plays his character as both perceptive and fairly intelligent  we can't help wondering why he remains such a naif. Pending payday notwithstanding, most sensible people would abandon ship under such increasingly dodgy circumstances, but our warm and affable hero never listens to the inner voices that scream danger in the back of his head.

To be sure, many decisions are removed from his control, given the close scrutiny that's part of Lang's environment. But our ghost makes a few mistakes of his own free will ... and these aren't the sort of circumstances that permit too many blunders.

McGregor remains a thoroughly engaging protagonist, even as we question the wisdom of his actions. His behavior certainly is credible; it just isn't smart. At first seeking Lang's inner humanity, in order to better present this dynamic public figure on the printed page, our ghost soon succumbs to the nagging curiosity that results from facts that don't add up.

We all love to believe we could solve such a mystery, and therefore McGregor's transformation into amateur investigative reporter plays into our own curiosity; we need him to stay with Lang, so we can figure out what the heck is going on.

Despite the fact that curiosity usually kills the cat.

Brosnan is all smiles and false bonhomie as Lang: a marvelous portrait of a public servant whose sincerity doesn't even go as deep as the clothes on his back. Looking into McGregor's eyes, we learn much about this writer who takes his work very seriously, even as he remains anonymous to the world; looking into Brosnan's eyes, we see nothing but our own reflection.

Williams is suitably brittle, chilly and manipulative: a woman who believes herself the guiding hand behind the husband in the public eye. At one time, this undoubtedly was true; right now ... she's not so sure. It's a crisp, penetrating performance, very much on par with the running character she played in TV's recently departed Dollhouse.

Cattrall remains a maddening cypher: one of the angels, or one of the devils? Very difficult to tell, and Polanski wants it that way.

The always riveting Tom Wilkinson pops up in the third act as Paul Emmett, a distinguished man of letters who apparently knew Lang during their student days at Cambridge. The manner by which our protagonist is led to Emmett is quite clever: very much a product of 21st century technology, and an unsettling clue to what may have happened to Lang's first ghost writer.

Polanski's directorial touch is both marvelous and ubiquitous; he creates impending peril from an act as simple as opening the drapes. Albrecht Konrad's production design is similarly threatening. Lang's boxy, fortress-like home is all sharp corners and sharper edges: a beguiling trap as cold as the easy smile on Cattrall's pretty face.

Even when McGregor's protagonist briefly departs these surroundings, in order to explore the island, he's surrounded by barren, rain-swept coastline, dilapidated shacks and derelict, rundown ports ... all somehow just as uninviting and ominous as Lang's home. (Filming actually took place in Germany, but it certainly plays like our own Eastern seaboard.)

No matter where our ghost goes, he remains isolated: cut off from anybody who might engineer a rescue ... if, indeed, that's even an option.

The Ghost Writer is a juicy conundrum within an enigma: skillfully conceived, and just as ingeniously brought to the big screen. You can't help admiring any film that prompts such enthusiastic discussion after the screen goes dark and the lights come up, as climactic revelations grant fresh meaning to earlier conversations and confrontations.

Jolly good show.

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