Looking down from director heaven, Alfred Hitchcock would be tickled with Roman Polanski’s (Chinatown) latest film, The Ghost Writer. It’s such an unabashed homage to the Hitchcockian style that it seems as if the late master himself created the film. No one improves Hitchcock like Polanski, so if you’re a fan of old-fashioned, layered thrillers with flawless performances and a brilliant script, then this film is for you.
The Ghost Writer features Hitchcock’s favorite theme — an ordinary man falls into extraordinary circumstances and must pull out all his unrecognized personal resources to stay alive. There’s Hitchcock’s signature muse — a blond Ice Queen whose motives are a mystery; an isolated location where nature is one of the uncontrollable adversaries; and shadowy villains who are always one step ahead of the hero. Most significant, there’s a final shot that so powerfully epitomizes the mood of the film, it will become an icon in film history just as the ending of Chinatown did 36 years ago.
The script closely follows the Robert Harris book on which it was based, meaning it’s deceptively simple, asks uncomfortable questions, and you’ll need to suspend your disbelief to enjoy it thoroughly. You’ll also have to allow yourself to relax into a more elegant, less hurried unraveling than most American audiences are used to.
Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer who’s better at telling other people’s stories than he is his own. He subsumes himself in the lives of his subjects so completely, in fact, that he calls himself simply, “The Ghost.” We never learn his real name.
On an island like Martha’s Vineyard, the former British Prime Minister, Andrew Lang (Pierce Brosnan), has sought refuge while he finishes his memoirs, for which a nervous publisher (Jim Belushi) is paying him $10 million. “I know nothing about politics,” the ghost explains when competing for the job. “I ask the questions real people want to know — I’ll give the book heart.” So everybody hopes — and he gets the job.
The ghost writer has only one month to finish the book because it was already near completion when the previous ghost writer died, a tragic fall off the ferry which was carrying his car and dozens of others to the island. This is how the movie starts, on the ferry, with pulsating scary music from composer Alexandre Desplait, as the cars’ headlights turn on one by one, except for one car. The beginnings, we come to find out, are what hide the secrets in this tale — the first scene of the movie, the opening lines of each chapter in the previous draft of book, the early days of marriage, the planning for war.[image-2] McGregor is given an office in an imposing museum-like concrete and glass edifice on a cold and lonely northern coast. The Asian handyman constantly sweeps sand off the decks, as if he and everyone in the house are in a losing battle to clear up the detritus of past wrongs. Andrew Lang is facing the worst crisis of his controversial life. During the Iraq war, he sent terrorists off to be tortured by the CIA. The United Nations is now charging him with being a war criminal. Angry British patriots want him punished for being a puppet of the United States.
Sharing her husband’s exile is his unhappy wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who has always served as his political muse and trusty sounding board. Lang’s efficient assistant and mistress is Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). His attorney (Timothy Hutton) leads a grim-faced legal team. Rounding out the cast, and creating the most terrifying scene in the movie, is a professor named Paull Emmet, played with satanic menace by Tom Wilkerson.
There’s little love in The Ghost Writer, nature is bleak, there are no children, women don’t say nice things, weak men gain great power and brave ones don’t always win. It’s a grim take on reality, and one powerful, engrossing, thought-churning film.