Cinematically, the month of March is akin to the morning after a wild, debaucherous party. The slightly deflated balloons no longer possess their shiny buoyancy, leftover pizza stains smear the walls and the guests are passed out beneath the stairways. Hollywood acts in much of the same fashion: the energy surrounding the Oscars has rapidly dissipated, as filmmakers recovering from months of campaigning take a few weeks of rest. Yet the hype for summer blockbusters hasn’t picked up enough momentum to properly take off. The garbage that typically remains is pedestrian beyond justification and gimmicky to boot.
“The Ghost Writer”
At the State
Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”), with his latest political espionage film, provides a refreshing departure from the usual March dreck. If “The Ghost Writer” were a month, it would be September — perhaps not substantial enough to merit an Oscar nomination (though with “The Blind Side” having been recently inducted into the Academy’s pantheon of nominees, who can really know for sure anymore?), but nevertheless a solid, witty and infinitely entertaining popcorn flick.
Played by Ewan McGregor (“Amelia”), an actor better known for showing his penis in artistic ways rather than acting in artistic ways, the titular “ghost writer” is a nameless scribe saddled with the job of dictating the political memoirs of former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, “Mamma Mia!”). Things become more convoluted as the prime minister is discovered to have been involved in the illegal seizure and torture of suspected terrorists during his time in office. As the “ghost” — as he likes to call himself — descends into this world of political intrigue and scandal, he finds himself gradually being sucked into the mystery and hypocrisy of the British and American political administrations.
It’s been noted that parallels to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Booth are not coincidental — author Robert Harris had long been investigating the Blair situation as a reporter for BBC News and dropped all his political work to pen his novel “The Ghost,” on which the film was based. Had Harris not been such an established reporter, he could have easily been sued for libel. Also perhaps not accidental is the film’s decidedly anti-American tone — Polanski has not set foot on American soil since serving time for unlawful intercourse with a minor in 1977, failing even to accept his Academy Award for Best Director in 2002.
Polanski has long maintained a fetish for brooding obsessions that push the lines of sexual perversion, yet it is this film’s deft construction of atmosphere and tension where he truly succeeds. The pervasive gloom that taints the air is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s classic thrillers, replete with Tim Burton-esque moments and the ominous sounds of a distant foghorn. The disillusioned, boozy “ghost” could have come straight out of the ’50s film noir reels of Billy Wilder or Orson Welles, a hardboiled writer who purposefully shuts out the drama ensuing behind him. In true fashion, Olivia Williams (“An Education”) plays Lang’s wife Ruth, the mysterious victim/femme fatale whose intentions are not quite certain.
Indeed, “The Ghost Writer” is much more plot-based than it is character-based, a move that keeps the audience constantly anticipating each word, twisting with surprises up until the very last frame. At the same time, the film crackles with mordant wit in the most unexpected areas, relieving the audience’s buildup of tension for a slight second.
Although this is a rather minor point, “The Ghost Writer” is one of the few films that manages to pull off the challenge of showing our increasing dependence on technology in a cinematic setting. Many films have attempted to show their characters engaged in texting, Facebooking or webcamming, with varying degrees of failure. It is to Polanski’s credit that when the “ghost” performs a Google search on the prime minister’s background, it doesn’t seem contrived or overtly stupid, and actually furthers the plot along.
With his lithe construction of tension and gripping tales of intrigue, romance and obsession, Polanski masterfully transforms what quickly could’ve escalated into a pedestrian chase-and-evade flick into an effective political espionage thriller for those who can’t stand the genre. Because the film doesn’t claim to be anything more than entertainment, it manages to succeed beyond its wildest expectations. “Ghost Writer” should be the touchstone against which all post-Oscar, pre-blockbuster films should be measured, a film that embraces the advent of modern technology while paying homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.