Ghost Writer a fitting final note for Polanski
 

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posted Friday, March 5, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 10

Ghost Writer a fitting final note for Polanski
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Ghost Writer
Opening February 26


Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is in a bit of a fix. His ghostwriter, so close to completing the controversial former British prime minister's memoirs, has recently passed away, falling over the side of a ferry in a drunken stupor and drowning in the icy waters.

Now he has a new Ghost (Ewan McGregor), and the once-powerful politician isn't sure what to make of him. But when a breaking scandal involving political prisoners and the American CIA puts him directly in the crosshairs of being labeled a war criminal, Lang has no choice but to leave his new writer alone and go to Washington, DC to try and sort this mess out.

Now his Ghost is curious. Why is this scandal affecting Lang so profoundly? What is it that makes the man's long-suffering wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) willing to step aside when she never has been willing before? Why does the politician's top aide Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) want him out of the local island hotel and into the main residence? And why is there no investigation into his predecessor's death? Why is everyone apparently eager to let the case be forgotten, even though there is strong evidence suggesting the death was hardly accidental?

If this really ends up being director Roman Polanski's last film - and considering the state of his legal troubles, it very well could be - then I'm hard-pressed not to call The Ghost Writer the Oscar-winner's best in over 30 years. Easily as accomplished as his justifiably lauded 2002 effort The Pianist, this thriller harkens back to the filmmaker's landmark pictures of the 1960s and '70s. This is his Chinatown for a new millennium, his Repulsion, his Rosemary's Baby, and like 1962's Knife in the Water, this is a masterpiece of suspense, paranoia and alleged violence that had me struggling for air in its vice-like grip and wondering what was going to happen next.

Based on the novel by Robert Harris and working from a script he co-wrote with the author, Polanski shows himself to be as much of a professional technician at generating thrills and chills as he's ever been. There isn't a false move or beat, nothing that gives off an artificial sheen or calls attention to itself for being obtuse or glossily unbelievable. While a case could be made that a third-act twist settles the score a bit too cleanly in regards to Lang's perceived and/or imagined abuses of power, the reality is that the seeds were planted at the start and then allowed to grow unhindered. Polanski keeps his eye on the ball even as he gamely misdirects viewers into looking into inconsequential keyholes.

This is done by making sure the focus is always on the Ghost. Beautifully played by McGregor (easily his best role since Big Fish, probably since Moulin Rouge), the whole movie is seen through his eyes. Much like Warren Beatty's Joseph Frady in 1974's The Parallax View or Robert Redford's Joseph Turner in 1975's 3 Days of the Condor, here is a man who believes himself to be three steps ahead when in reality he's firmly trapped right behind the eight-ball. He thinks he's smarter than everyone around him, more attuned to their duplicity and lies, but this Ghost isn't as sharp or as clever as he imagines, and when the web starts constricting around his neck, it did the same around mine, too.

Like all of Polanski's films, even his most odious like Pirates or The Ninth Gate, this one looks and sounds superb. Alexandre Desplat's (Fantastic Mr. Fox) mesmerizing score is the perfect accompaniment to the onscreen action, while Albrecht Konrad's (Aimée & Jaguar) almost antiseptic and institutionally clean production design is the ideal counterpoint to the unwieldy political chaos. As for Pawel Edelman's (The Life Before Her Eyes) cinematography, there aren't words to do it justice, as the man's skills behind the camera are attuned to all of Polanski's playfully gut-wrenching melodramas.

Best of all, however, is Hervé de Luze's (Tell No One) crackerjack editing. In a way, I can't help but think Polanksi's ongoing forced home confinement while his legal troubles are sorted out affected him and de Luze. The movie's claustrophobic feel, its unquestioned sense of unbreakable confinement, its unwavering impression of overpowering dread comes from an indescribable place, and I couldn't help but wonder if Polanski felt himself to be the Ghost as he and his editor assembled their paranoia puzzle pieces together into a finished product.

I'm not sure everyone will feel the same about The Ghost Writer as I. Some will undoubtedly hold current affairs against Polanski and not give his film the benefit of the doubt, while others won't have the attention span required to allow this thriller to blossom into greatness. But for fans of the auteur able to separate his personal life from his cinematic one, and for others open to old-school suspense where no one gets away clean and failure truly is an option, this political whirligig delivers the goods. It is a bona fide masterpiece from a master of the medium, and if it does end up being Polanski's final motion picture, I can't think of a greater high to end on.



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