[5 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Abandon hope all ye who enter here for you will not be seeing an unheralded masterpiece by one of film’s final auteurs. While his name has been bandied about more for his recent return run-in with the law, Roman Polanski remains a brilliant filmmaker with a considered oeuvre. Sure, he sullied it along the way, be it with admissions of statutory rape, or movies like Pirates, but when you carry a canon that contains the likes of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Tenant, we can forgive a few Bitter Moons along the way. His latest, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ political thriller The Ghost, may seem like a natural for the aging artist. But in a world where the genre has been overdone to death, nothing Polanski brings to the mix is new, novel…or entertaining.
After the mysterious death of a previous scribe, a professional ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is brought in to oversee the quick turnaround of a disgraced ex-British Prime Minster’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs. Within minutes of taking the job, the politico is up on charges of war crimes. Soon, stories and historic facts aren’t adding up and our hero believes that there is something suspicious between his subject, his spurned wife (Olivia Williams) and a Harvard Professor (Tom Wilkinson) who knew them both when they were in college. With the help of a highly placed aide (Kim Cattrall) and his own natural curiosity, our guide will unravel the various mysteries and links between the parties, as well as connect them all to the initial “accident” which brought him to the sinister situation in the first place.
It’s a shame when someone you respect goes all predicable on you, when every edge-of-your-seat turn is telegraphed by familiarity with the artform and knowledge of the narrative type. Simply peel off the particulars of Roman Polanski’s latest and you’ll understand the sad sense of familiarity. Naïve young writer willing to sell his soul for a substantial payday? He’ll find himself head over heels in a deadly cabal before long. Pompous former UK executive who pleads innocence while the world argues over his guilt? You just know there’s some truth wedged in between all the twisted plot points. The disgruntled wife, wary of the closeness between her husband, his assistant/mistress, and the new young stud in the house? Oh, she’ll soon be turning up in the writer’s bed. And what about the ominous threats and suggestions of secrets lying “at the beginning”? They will surely pay off in a last act denouement that will be as underwhelming as it is unnecessary.
Indeed, if The Ghost Writer wanted to be daring and different, Polanski should have trashed Robert Harris’ by-the-numbers novel and stuck with updating the storyline, staying specifically in the realm of the recent War on Terror. Then he could tweak the telling, offer ambiguous answers and unclear solutions, playing with our perception of such material and our anticipation of how it should pay off. Going all homage and Hitchcockian on us doesn’t really cut it. Polanski has always been about edge, not the easy. A great parallel is the recent work by Martin Scorsese in the sensational Shutter Island. Both men clearly understand the language of film and the demands of the artform. Their vision is keen and clear. But while one plays around with it, manipulating and perverting both aspects to breathe new life into an old genre, the other just pretties things up and calls it a day.
Polanski has been playing too nice as of late, lingering over his post-Pirates choices with more misses (The Ninth Gate, Oliver Twist) than hits (an Oscar for The Pianist). While his celebrity continues to generate more buzz than his obvious talents, it’s clear that the crafty creativity he showed in the ‘70s has since dissipated. The Ghost Writer is a good looking film, filled with high tech settings and gloomy New England glitz. Brosnan’s temporary home is the kind expensive space that generates more stares than comforts, and the rainy, windblown backdrop supposedly symbolizes the constant narrative storm on the horizon. But none of it generates much suspense…or surprise. We know that McGregor will at least get to the end of the mystery - there are just too many ambiguous conversations to leave his detective work so incomplete.
Even the actors appear in on the redundancy ruse, playing each scene like they know something the audience currently doesn’t (but will discover shortly). Brosnan’s smirk is so omnipresent it’s apparent even when he’s not in the scene. Similarly, Kim Cattrall is trying for something akin to misunderstood homewrecker. She’s all arched back and equally quizzical eyebrows. Every one of Olivia Williams’ reactions illustrate her clearly guilty conscious, while a late in the second act appearance by Tom Wilkinson offers a similar amount of “I did it” demeanor. Again, if Polanski were asking his actors to purposefully give away their position in the plot, we might appreciate the game. But McGregor is so wide-eyed and blank as our hero that we can’t help but think he’s in on the joke as well.
Pushing ever onward, the two hour plus pacing runs out of ideas around the same time that the audience runs out of patience. There are just too many scenes of frigid walks against gray skied, wave-swept beaches, pointless conversations with aging icons from eons past (Eli Wallach is almost unrecognizable) offering little in the way of valuable clues. In fact, what The Ghost Writer is missing mostly is potential red herrings. We don’t get much information at first, and then are suddenly swept up in a CIA/war crimes contingency that appears to come out of the radical side of left field. Connections are coincidental and so readily apparent that even an amateur sleuth could easily pick them out…and then the ‘word find’ puzzle finale foils even the most mannered attempt at logic (surely an editor worth their salt would pick this out).
All of these elements would work in book form, where a heroic image of the valiant investigative ghost writer picking apart a well crafted conspiracy resonates with pure prosaic nuance. We follow it faithfully because no one is trying to illustrate our own internal Sherlock Holmes. But Polanski, even in this minor key, fails to manufacture the same kind of interest level here. As a result, The Ghost Writer limps along when it should really crackle, stumbling over aspects of its story that a bit of better plotting would probably remedy. Harris’ novel, for what it’s worth, is probably guilty of the same self-evident failures. But we expect more from one of the best filmmakers of the post-modern era, someone whose present infamy easily matches his cinematic skills. Roman Polanski is capable of more. The Ghost Writer, sadly, is an example of less - a lot less.