Reviews

The Ghost Writer

As the ghostwriter makes his evaluation at the start of The Ghostwriter, you realize, unhappily, that this is the movie over-explaining itself.


The Ghost Writer

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-02-019 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-03-19 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"All the words are there. They're just in the wrong order." So sighs a newly assigned ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor, playing a man with no name), as he appraises the manuscript he's supposed to fix, namely, the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Locked down at Lang's Martha's Vineyard hideaway -- one hard copy in a safe, with an oh-so-tempting flash-drive attached by what looks like a string -- the project is suddenly made urgent when Lang comes under scrutiny by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, specifically, sending suspected Pakistani terrorists to the CIA so they could be tortured.

As the ghostwriter makes his evaluation at the start of The Ghostwriter, you realize, unhappily, that this is the movie over-explaining itself. Indeed, his own words serve as a rough guide for the coming cat-and-mousey plot, in which villains and heroes and a series of betrayals are both too easy to figure out and too similar to Roman Polanski's previous work. Here again, men make bad choices and women alternately suffer and reap benefits. And here again, the protagonist's lack of knowledge is the presumed ground for your emotional investment. The ghostwriter is prompted to investigate the recent death of the previous ghostwriter (he has somehow drowned, a suspenseful precis reveals, falling or pushed off the ferry from Cape Cod), coming to believe this man had information that would shake up global relations by exposing bad individual acts and collective cover-ups.

The movie lays out a number of broad, vaguely topical targets: Lang is a charming, bright, and frustrated man, much like Tony Blair; the U.S. military is in cahoots with a company named Hatherton (yes, yawn, read: Halliburton); and no one on Lang's staff is willing to talk much about life inside their circle. So that you can understand the ghostwriter's own frustrations, he observes poignant set-pieces: a gardener on a gusty day unable to keep the leaves he's gathered in a wheelbarrow or a lighthouse standing far off a gray beach.

The Ghostwriter brings you along on his moralizing ride, inclined to like Lang, inclined to distrust his overprotective head of staff, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and quite flummoxed by the wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), whose poses are numerous and fluid, from vulnerable to furious to righteous to desperate, sometimes all in a matter of seconds. Irritated that her husband's situation has left them in a state much "like being exiled with Napoleon in St. Helena," she finds in the ghostwriter a sympathetic ear, perhaps a cohort among a small throng of "others."

In an effort to maintain his independence and something like integrity, the ghostwriter tries to stay in a local hotel, but is soon forced to move into the first ghostwriter's room inside the Lang compound by a media frenzy when the ICC charges break (this frenzy includes a Cindy Sheehan-like father, enraged that his son died for a bad war, camped out at the end of the driveway: he represents the stakes of the secrets here, though he's an emotional distraction the movie exploits rather than respects). The ghostwriter's move to the Langs' place brings all manner of trouble, from his discovery of maybe, apparently telling phone numbers and photos to his increasing closeness to Ruth ("Bad idea," he tells himself in his bathroom mirror. And you, who've seen Chinatown, can only mutter, "No kidding.")

The ghostwriter's inquiry does yield actual clues, of course, some more interesting than others, all in need of sorting (see also: Frantic, Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate). The Langs share a Cambridge University background and some fuzzy connections to a onetime CIA agent named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) (see: Kim Philby and the Cambridge Four-or-Five). Shot mostly in Germany, the movie's dreary exteriors and mostly exquisite interiors suggest a standard correspondence among wealth-and-power and corruption. It's something of a relief when the ghostwriter goes to visit Emmett, too briefly, as their conversation tilts gradually from polite ambiguity to patent subterfuge (Wilkinson is, as ever, simultaneously daunting and delicate, his fluttering fingers on his chair a taut emotional symphony in themselves).

As the ghostwriter comes closer and closer to a story that makes sense -- words that are in the right order -- he is bothered by his employer (played by James Belushi, of all people, insisting the project be done in half the original time, that is, two weeks) as well as scary government cars driven by faceless men. He's a smart fellow and a good writer enough writer to make the best-seller list with some earlier book, but his reading skills need work.

5

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image