Sunday, March 21, 2010
TEFB REVIEW: THE GHOST WRITER
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall
Last month Martin Scorsese made arguably his best film in years with Shutter Island. With The Ghost Writer, once again an influential '70's filmmaker has crafted an exquisite and important latter period work. Director Roman Polanski's film is a joy to watch even though its pace is deliberately slow, and it will surely end up on many end of the year top ten lists. Including my own.
A British writer (Ewan McGregor), referred to in the movie only as The Ghost, is hired (by an unrecognizable Jim Belushi) to finish penning the memoirs of the country's former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, whose character is not-so-loosely based on real BPM Tony Blair). The Ghost's predecessor was recently found washed up on the shore not too far from Lang's vacation house on an island off the coast of New England. The Ghost travels to the United States to interview the Prime Minister and finish what his predecessor started. But before he knows it, The Ghost becomes drawn into the private life of the PM, which may or may not involve a conspiracy theory regarding the CIA. Murder, danger, seduction, political conspiracy, and being tailed by a creepy unmarked black car all ensue.
While the plot and genre tics are prevalent in The Ghost Writer, Polanski is a master and at home in this type of film. The "every-man who has good intentions and before he knows it is in over his head" film is what Polanski excels at (think: Chinatown), and here he is at the top of his game. Like Scorsese did with Shutter Island, Polanski isn't content with approaching his thriller using the techniques of modern filmmakers. He lets scenes play out and doesn't rely on jump cuts or loud music to ratchet up the tension. He has faith enough in the screenplay and the actors to know that simple camera angles, facial reactions, and ambient sound is just as effective at putting people on seat-edges. There is a moving dolly shot towards the end of the film of a note being passed through a crowd that is so mind-blowingly simple but so completely effective that I would have stayed for another showing of the film, could I have afforded it. The film is also oddly funny (and I mean that in the best way possible), and that humor helps to break the tension and pace the film.
When you have a director at the top of his game it also helps to have a cast that is right there with him. Ewan McGregor is an actor that hasn't interested me in quite some time. He showed much promise with his early work in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but has since bounced between huge summer blockbuster fare (the Star Wars prequels) and low-budget independent productions. He hasn't quite been able to find his niche in either. The last time I remember really liking him in something was Tim Burton's Big Fish, and that film is seven years old. That being said, McGregor is so good here that he practically redeems himself from all of the shoddy acting choices he's made during the past fifteen years. His dry wit is part of what makes The Ghost Writer's humor go over well, and as an every-man in over his head McGregor just works.
Not to be out-done, Pierce Brosnan acts toe to toe against his co-star. The character of Alan Lang is one who was never into politics before he realized it could get him as many girls (and more power) as his chosen studies, the dramatic arts (acting) could. Brosnan has the right balance of ego, charm, charisma, and likeability to make you believe a person as shallow and empty as Alan Lang could become Prime Minister of Britain.
Olivia Williams also needs to be mentioned as Lang's wife Ruth. She's not a stunning beauty, but she's more than attractive, and has a sultry noirish look to her. She plays "helpless wife who knows more than she lets on" very well.
The supporting cast also does a fine job of making the film work, although Kim Cattrall is certainly a weak link in the chain. Her character is British, but I have no idea what accent she's attempting. It's a fairly minor but distracting complaint. The rest of the cast, which includes Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, Tom Wilkinson, and Eli Wallach (94 years old!) do solid work.
Of course, it also helps if an old-school style thriller has an old-school style score, and I'm happy to say The Ghost Writer has a brilliant one. The score (by Alexander Desplat; sample here) perfectly conveys the film's pulpy origins (it's based on a book by Robert Harris who also wrote the screenplay) and off-kilter humor.
The Ghost Writer certainly isn't for everyone, and I imagine most modern audiences will be turned off by its molasses-slow pace and lack of blood, but those willing to invest two hours in one of the finest political-conspiracy thrillers in quite some time will be well rewarded.