There is no mistaking the inherent, indelible accouterments of master filmmaker Roman Polanski as evident in the 2008 political thriller Ghost Writer. Based on the 2007 Robert Harris bestseller “The Ghost”, Polanski co-scripted the adaptation with Harris for his twelfth film in a career that spans forty years. It would be impossible to separate from the subconscious the filmmaker’s scandalous, rightfully troublesome legal matters dating back to a rape conviction in 1978, yet rooted in topical, fertile ground is a return to familiar themes and careful expository of what the filmmaker describes as “expression of momentary desires..”
As a political thriller Ghost Writer exudes tension while capitalizing on public curiosity and celebrity obsession that extends very often to the political arena. One might remember the outcry over the relationship between Princess Dianna and Dodi Fayed, especially in the wake of their tragic deaths. One might as easily draw a scrap or two from the interest and hotly controversial fanfare over former President Clinton and Monika Lewinski in recent memory. Whereas Polanski uses this fascination to much effect, he is also interested in the disarmingly humorous moments of every day life that can very often be underscored by deception, doubt and secrecy. His intention has always been to capture and portray realistic violence and humanity in his films and there is no question of this purposeful technique here. When an unsuspecting ghostwriter is selected to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister he finds himself entrenched in public scrutiny that makes everyone culpable to some degree in a thick, impenetrable web of impropriety and criminal accusations.
While some have described the plot as absurd and the setup as contrived, this in no way detracts from the thrill ride that ensues. The argument that stories are contrived seems to misunderstand the very nature of cinema in that every story is setup and presented, as I have written elsewhere, deliberately if not in an artificial way. This is akin to the wind in the sail; if not for the actions of the wind the boat may not ever leave the mooring. There are a handful of notable actors interspersed throughout the film. Timothy Hutton and James Belushi deliver hard-faced, wonderfully stodgy minor roles that engage from the beginning and serve up what will become the ghostwriter’s (Ewan McGregor) story and journey. James Belushi is nearly unrecognizable as John Maddox, the figurehead publisher who brings The Ghost and Adam Lang, the Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) together. Brosnan fills the shoes of the former Prime Minister with depth and breadth, a charismatic but troubled man drawn into the line of fire as he desperately tries to separate himself from a past of indiscretions and any notion of a criminal cover-up. The memoir serves the purpose of both the plot and the source of unraveling as we move in and out of the past and present with varying degrees of revelation. It is not until the final stages of the second act that we begin to feel close to closure but Polanski keeps the end just off frame and like any good thriller, doesn’t show his hand until the final moments of the film.
Ghost Writer reminds us of an era long gone when suspense and intrigue were simple mixers for a much stronger cocktail teaming just below a surface that we had to get at often with bare fingers and inquisitiveness. Today, character and story is displaced by quick, sloppy editing and nauseating camera work in the name of frenetic, emotional and psychological visualization that cannot be accomplished otherwise. The world of this film is defined early on, considered and developed as a character that informs the story as much as it does the rest of the ensemble in subtle and necessary ways.
Polanski the filmmaker is evidently informed by Polanski the man, his personal matters in tow as he weaves suspense and story, character and plot together as seamlessly as any of his previous films. One might make the case that his best films are behind him but there is no validity in discounting Ghost Writer as inferior for such comparison. Every film should be as such, nurtured and embraced as a solitary entity without the need to compete with every other thing before it or since. Polanski the filmmaker employs the sensibilities of a stalwart cineaste, as sharp as ever for a 77 year old who has seen his share of personal tragedy and heartache. His professional career at times has also been under pressure, ridiculed and demeaned for failing to achieve the success of his early films. Yet for all his troubles and triumphs, for all the cautionary catastrophes, Polanski proves his films bare the indelible brand of an auteur that shows no signs of letting go or apologizing any time soon.