Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Set on Martha’s Vineyard during a particularly wind-swept, weather-beaten season, The Ghost Writer is a model of dread. Roman Polanski’s new film has provoked a great many comparisons to Hitchcock, and who am I to fight the tide? I can’t think of a better way to sum up this film’s virtues, which include Polanski’s masterful sense of narrative economy (his eye is always open for the telling detail or gesture) or the balance of suspense and mordant humour that makes the film so engaging.

Ewan McGregor stars as the Ghost (like any self-respecting ghost writer, he remains nameless), who takes on the difficult task of polishing up the memoirs of an embattled politician after the body of the original ghost writer is found washed up on shore. The politician in question is Alan Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister modeled on Tony Blair—although unlike his real-world counterpart, Lang is facing the prospect of being tried for war crimes as a result of authorizing the illegal deportation and torture of terror suspects.

You can usually tell when an actor really relishes his role, and Brosnan devours this one with gluttonous glee right from the start, when we first see him stepping off a private jet and offering a dainty little queen-mother wave to the waiting crowd. In his next appearance, he is wearing sweatpants and splayed on a couch post-workout, dripping with sweat and insouciance. Brosnan clearly enjoys building up and deflating this little political puppet, and his performance, half-mocking but still sympathetic, adds to the ambiguity of whether or not Lang actually knows what is going on.

As Lang’s wife, Olivia Williams, who doesn’t get nearly enough high-profile roles these days, also excels at obscuring her character’s motivations. McGregor, on the other hand, is given a much more difficult part in the Ghost—a character who lacks the forethought to have any motivations worth hiding. I’ve never much cared for McGregor, who strikes me as too bland to make a compelling anchor for any film, but he’s well used here. Polanski seems to have chosen him for the very blankness that makes him so dull most of the time. He truly seems like a person who could make a living lending his voice to other people.

That willingness to become a mouthpiece for others is at the heart of this character’s troubles, in fact. The Ghost is a passive person, rarely the motivating agent behind anything that happens. More through stumbling folly than any real sense of purpose, he finds himself tangled up in the mystery of what happened to his predecessor. Even when he intends to leave the whole mess behind, he can't help himself. Driving away in the dead man's SUV, he follows the preprogrammed route on the GPS unit straight back into the heart of the mystery. Rarely thinking past the next turn in the road, the Ghost is easily led along the path of his worst judgment.

Despite what initially seem like missteps, the film avoids any serious lapses in judgment on its own part. At first glance, The Ghost Writer might even seem like Chinatown-lite. Polanski’s earlier depiction of a corrupted world in which all of the elites conspire against justice returns here, albeit less persuasive as it makes the jump from municipal to international politics. Based in Los Angeles history, Chinatown spoke to specifics, while The Ghost Writer necessarily deals in generalities.

However, the despair of Chinatown has given way to droll detachment. The high-stakes games of power and intrigue are treated with breezy disdain, just as the murder mystery is treated with an almost patronizing patience (the film even climaxes with one of those eureka moments where someone rearranges some words and discovers the secret to everything). What really matters is the moral education of the Ghost, who must come to terms with his own complicity in Lang’s actions—it’s no surprise that the Ghost admits early on to voting for Lang, simply shrugging and saying everyone else did it at the time. Polanski, who lost a mother to Auschwitz, is surely familiar with the dark purposes such an apathetic, passive mindset can be called to serve.

Rather than settle for the mostly academic outrage at the behaviour of our leaders, Polanski—admittedly, not the most ideal ethics teacher—prefers to inquire into our own guilty consciences. The most chilling moment in the film comes when the Ghost is drafted to write Lang’s press response after the war crimes investigation is announced. Afterwards, Lang’s assistant dryly informs him, “You’re an accomplice now.” It’s a disturbing realization: just because your name isn’t on the cover doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what’s inside.

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