By Bob Clark
Of the myriad twists, turns and genuine surprises to be found throughout The Ghost Writer, perhaps the biggest one is the revelation that Roman Polanski is, in fact, a colossal bookworm. This is, after all, the second thriller he’s built around, of all things, the publishing world, and the fact that he has managed to generate such suspense, charm and black humor out of the writing, reading and editing of printed words on a page must be one of the director’s signature achievements. Perhaps it shouldn’t really be that big of a shock—after all, his first name translates as “novel” in his home-language of French. Like any other filmmaker, Polanski is familiar with reading scripts, and sometimes even writing them himself, penning words both to be spoken and found between the lines that are laced with that characteristic smirking cynicism of his. Some of his defining films, like so many other directors, were based on novels both well known and underreported—how else would most people have heard of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s tale of the book-detective underworld had it not been for Polanski’s wickedly satanic The Ninth Gate? Besides, for a man who’s spent the better part of his adult life avoiding most of the civilized world in the interest of dodging extradition, it’s not as though he’s got anything better to do with his time. He may belong in prison, but at least he’s developed a jail-bird’s hobbies.
Perhaps his longstanding international exile is one of the reasons Robert Harris’ novel appealed to him in the first place. Sure, the two had been collaborating for years on a planned adaptation of the author’s Pompeii, an extravagant bonanza that might’ve turned out the most expensive European film ever made were it not for a screen actor’s strike. Polanski finds a wealth of interest, however, in the story of a former Prime Minister who at first glance bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony Blair, but upon further inspection starts to resemble the director, or at least how the fugitive filmmaker might prefer to see himself. Even in name, Adam Lang recalls another director of intellectual thrillers and a shady legal history. Deposed by his electorate and hiding away from war protesters on Martha’s Vineyard, he seems a bit too cocky to be closely related to the man Michael Sheen portrayed in Peter Morgan’s film and television plays. For a politician, albeit a former one, he seems surprisingly impolitic, cagey and vulgar, at least insofar as the PG-13 over-dubbing allows. Then again, we are seeing him at his rawest form, away from the public eye, out of office and under more pressure than usual, even for a man of public image. Not only does he have to contend with his own legal limbo—whereas Polanski only ever had to worry about the softened charge of statutory rape, Lang finds himself accused of facilitating illegal torture in the war on terror—but now, of all times, he has chosen to write his memoirs.
Enter the ghost writer; or perhaps I should say, “The Ghost”, as that’s all the film offers as a name for him in the credits. Played by Ewan McGregor, the role of an anonymous wordsmith who specializes in patching up woebegone autobiographies– and has been summoned to improve Lang’s memoirs after the mysterious drowning of his last collaborator– has some faint rings of familiarity here and there. At times he recalls “The Eye”, the similarly anonymous insurance agent that he played in Stephan Elliot’s Eye of the Beholder. Occasionally, he has the somewhat paunchy look of a younger Oliver Reed, much at odds with his character’s growing hesitance at every turn in the story. Most of the time, however, he rekindles memories of the young Obi-Wan Kenobi from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, just as Harrison Ford arrived readymade as a distraught version of Han Solo or Indiana Jones, traipsing about modern-day Paris in Frantic. In fact, nearly everyone in this film carries with them the specter of roles from ten years ago or more– Olivia Williams, the comely young schoolteacher from Rushmore grown despondent and Machiavellian in her middle-age, a vague hint of black widow sensuality beneath her Lady Macbeth monotone; Kim Cattral, that teasing creature from Sex and the City, hobbled here by an increasingly awkward accent that makes her sound more like her turncoat Vulcan from Star Trek VI; finally, Pierce Brosnan, ex-James Bond, no longer serving in Her Majesty’s secret service, dodging paparazzi instead of bullets as former Prime Minister, Adam Lang. Hell, even Eli Wallach has time to appear for a brief, wonderful cameo halfway through, looking no worse for wear than his old namesake “Ugly”.
There’s a delicious kind of irony at work from the casting, and at the film’s best moments Polanski seems to recognize the amusing reactions his audiences are likely to have– like when CNN covers a story about a former Double-O agent approving of the kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques that Daniel Craig underwent in Casino Royale, or when an errant Jedi Knight gets a conspiratorial earful about a two-faced politician making secret deals to support Reagan-era Star Wars missile-defense systems. At moments like these, the film feels pleasantly lightweight, a half-serious mash-up of pop-cultural entities as canny as Godard or Tarantino, pitting sci-fi hero against mastermind superspy in a way that highlights the artificiality of the political stage their characters stand on, in general. Even Wallach’s presence reminds us of the foreign locations for the Spaghetti Westerns, and how Polanski’s America is only ever as false as Leone’s was, except on different coasts. It’s essential as a method of addressing the artificiality inherent throughout the film, as its European stand-ins for Martha’s Vineyard only ring halfway true. Though at times there’s a pleasing Bunuel-style dreaminess to the way all those shoreline beaches and off-roads disguise themselves as rustic New England, there are forever small details that remind you of the fabrication at work– the way all the televisions are tuned to the clipped accents of CNN International instead of CNN (I think more cable providers carry BBC), the way that New York license plates still have the Statue of Liberty on them (something any fan of Ghostbusters II will recognize), or the way Lang’s stark, bomb-shelter style compound appears to have all its windows’ backdrops photoshopped in. At times, the recreated American landscape that the film plays with carries the same haunting tone of Kubrick’s soundstage Manhattan from Eyes Wide Shut, a half-remembered dream of a country beautifully suited for a traumnovelle told by a lingering expatriate. Like a late, lingering shot of paper sheets blown by the wind (a Fellini-esque artifact that keeps popping up with other directors, from Gilliam’s Brazil to Scorsese’s Shutter Island) Polanski seems game to enhance the insubstantial qualities of his setting as a metaphor for the modern political state of America– a country of ghost writers and ghost towns.
Mostly, however, it also reminds you of how Polanski would find himself arrested on-sight if he ever dared shooting on location in the U.S. again. Like Lucas’ prequels, The Ghost Writer is something of a greenscreen chamber drama, with all the same kinds of static long-shots and angles made all the more remote from humanity from the flattening compositions and the soulless modern art on every wall. Perhaps all those empty spaces of blank, solid colors on-set inspire a kind of abstract cinema in their directors, something that works wonders when the decor of the finished film remains minimalist– not far removed from the iconic “prison without walls” of THX 1138, or the Brechtian emptiness of Von Trier’s Dogville– yet loses something in translation when scenerey is keystroked into frame. But thanks to the director’s deft touch with actors and the witty flourishes throughout the script by himself and Harris, there’s none of the same kind of off-putting filibustering psychobabble that orbited around McGregor the last time he sat in on political debates in posh futurist settings. Polanski’s target is not the bureaucratic red-tape of space-opera diplomacy, but instead the out-of-this-world absurdity existing in the convergence between high-profile celebrity and low-gutter realpolitik. At its most dynamic moments it begins to resemble a darkly comic take on Hitler’s last days in his bunker, exploding at every fly on the wall that won’t stand still long enough to be swatted. Polanski delivers some of his best dramatic set-pieces here, playing on the voyeuristic theater of politics in ways that recall Frankenheimer at his best, as characters leave the confines of the soundstage and the film lens, only to reappear before video cameras. Just as ghosts may speak to the living in the old cemetarial houses they inhabit, so too can ghost writers find their words suddenly spoken through the ventriloquist-mouth of a deposed puppet leader live on television, the whole media-saturated landscape as his haunting ground.
It allows him to cover more physical ground even while remaining anchored to that single compound for much of the feature, giving it both the rooted strength of his last political exercise in Death and the Maiden, but none of the stilted arch-proscenium fenced-in qualities, capturing a real-time absurdity inherent in the pageantry of live-television and reality programs. Again, it’s easy to see the ways in which Polanski identified so strongly with the material, staging so much of it either in the sci-fi claustrophobia of special-effects assisted house-arrest or out in an American countryside almost as false as the knowingly French “Atlantic City” of Made in U.S.A. If none of it ever seems precisely real, then perhaps neither is the legal limbo he has made for himself, either. It’s an aesthetic that stands in stark contrast to the last time Polanski conducted a thriller of this scale and scope with The Ninth Gate, maybe his most knowingly adventurous film to date, where Johnny Depp’s book detective globetrotted his way across Europe to discover satanic secret societies, battle wits with former vampires, and maybe even bed the princess of darkness herself. In that film America was just as artificial, merely a few flat backdrops seen from penthouse windows, but the various Spanish and French locales were genuine, and offered a wonderful flair of tactile thrillseeking, aided superbly by Darius Khondji’s smoky cinematography. Though the focus was literary, the language was pure pulp, with film noir femme fatales, shadow-stalking goons and expository spouting MacGuffin hunters around every turn.
It is here that the key difference between that film and The Ghost Writer may be found– not in trading in the diabolical for the political or the detective for the conspiracy theorist, but in trading the swashbuckler for weekend-warrior. If there is a single flaw that threatens to sabotage Polanski’s film, if ever so slightly (besides an uncharacteristically cavalier act by the Ghost which precipitates an arresting, if unearned ending, perhaps the most tacked-on downbeat conclusion since the reckless driving in Wages of Fear) , it is the lack of true action undertaken by McGregor’s Ghost for the majority of the movie. His character is not cut from the same cloth as Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, that sly dog who conned his way through most of Chinatown stealing snapshots, registry pages and tell-tale bifocals right under people’s unscarred noses. Instead, we have a laptop-sleuth, an unambitious writer who appears to be lacking in the primary drives of curiosity and willpower that fuel the best onscreen crimesolvers. Part of the problem is the way in which Polanski leans on modern technological conveniences to pilot the story forward– instead of asking questions of Lang’s inner circle, all he has to do is Google him. Instead of nosing around to see where his literary predecessor had been nosing around before him, all he has to do is get in the dead man’s car and follow the on-board GPS navigator. While time-saving technological means allow him to spend more time on the slowly boiling political and character driven plot, there is a genuine sacrifice that’s made by web and plot devices like these at the expense of the story’s onscreen weight. Aside from following directions from his superiors, computers and luxury sedans, McGregor’s character doesn’t do very much of his own volition besides proofreading a manuscript and participating in a handful of clumsy chase scenes. It may be the most passive protagonist the actor has ever played, or Polanski has ever showcased.
And yet, it works, even if only on those arm’s length terms. If it is occasionally easy to become disengaged from the Ghost’s actions onscreen, it is only because his remote exploits are those of a man whose job and position in society, by their very nature, are designed to keep him in the dark. Polanski imbues him with the feeling of a protagonist who appears to be taking dictation in his daily life, as well, which may be how the director views himself. In the years following his scandalous charges of rape and flight from extradition, there have been many defenders who have sought to explain his actions, if not outright excuse them, by placing them within the context of his broader life story– robbed of his mother and childhood by the Holocaust, made homeless and destitute by World War II, and perhaps most tellingly, left widowed and childless by the Manson Family, Polanski’s life story is one that has been shaped and scarred by so many personal losses and tragedies that it can be easy to sympathize with his victimization, and even identify with him, no matter how indefensible the outrage of his crime may be. Since then, his filmmaking has remained both physically and psychologically landlocked, with only an occasional tour of paperback adventurism every now and then to disguise all the old anxieties and neuroses. If The Ghost Writer winds up becoming, as some fear, the director’s final film, then it may very well be the most natural conclusion possible to his career, a post-mortem on his career and exploits that seems almost prematurely posthumous. In the twin characters of the deposed Adam Lang and the soulless Ghost, Polanski has found his two most ideal stand-ins, a combination of characters that sums himself up as no mere mea culpa memoir ever could– the ghost writer of his own life story.