Let’s toast to this not being a Star Wars movie.
Our friends who have kids warned us that our moviegoing habits would suffer once we became parents. And how. The last movie we saw in the theater (Eclipse) was five months ago. We have finished exactly one movie on DVD since becoming parents, and that was Kick-Ass. We started and stopped it five times.
Last Friday night we were feeling our oats in that “I-think-I-have-the-energy-to-stay-up-past-nine-o’clock” kind of way. So Ben went to Blockbuster and, after passing on Bad Lieutenant, brought home Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.
This is how he was received:
ERIN: What’s this about?
BEN: Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer for a retired prime minister who’s supposed to be Tony Blair. He starts writing the memoirs and all these suspicious things begin happening. You know, people dying, cover ups, standard thriller stuff.
ERIN: Who else is in it?
BEN [handing Erin the box]: Pierce Brosnan is the prime minister. And Olivia Williams plays his wife. I heard it’s supposed to be good.
ERIN: Hmmm. Was this direct-to-DVD?
BEN: What? No! It was in the theaters. It’s by Roman Polanski.
ERIN: You know we haven’t finished “Modern Family” yet.
BEN: IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE GOOD. WHY DON’T YOU TRUST MY MOVIE CHOICES?
Based on The Ghost by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer is a sure-footed thriller that begins well, loses focus and then rallies for a strong finish. McGregor signs on to finish Adam Lang’s (Brosnan) memoirs after the previous ghost writer turns up dead on the beach. (Note: Think twice about accepting any position in which the previous occupant turns up dead on a beach.) McGregor’s character (who is never named, called by Lang “man” and by himself as “the Ghost”) is flown to the publisher’s house, a sleek, modern compound set on Martha’s Vineyard in winter, where Lang and his entourage are holed up. (Polanski, who obviously could not film on the real Martha’s Vineyard, substitutes the beaches of northern Germany.)
Everything is presented from Ghost’s perspective, so we, like him, are not sure what to make of the messy situation he has walked into like a man stepping into a pile of dog poop (though being paid handsomely to do so). Lang is accused, by a former cabinet minister no less, of abetting torture and rendition, and faces charges from the International Criminal Court. His sullen, intelligent wife is withdrawn, likely because he’s having an affair with his assistant (Kim Cattrall). The memoir itself is a dreadful bore of warmed over sentiment (run to 700 pages, no less). When the Ghost finally gets an audience with Lang, he gets vague, glossy recollections that turn out to be not true. It could be anyone’s memoir, or no one’s.
The movie is shot through with steel gray, echoing the Ghost’s unsure footing in this unfamiliar terrain. (McGregor’s character notes early on, in making a case for himself as the right man for this particular project, that he has no interest in politics.) There is perpetual rain, long walks on colorless dunes, boxy interiors lit with subdued colors. (David Denby says of the film’s cinematography, “I don’t know when I’ve seen menace rendered with such delicate but persistent force.”) Despite his difficulty reading the situation, the Ghost finds himself in the thick of it after he drafts a statement and hears his words repeated back to him on the evening news. Later he compromises himself even further when he ends up in bed with Lang’s wife. (Whoops!)
The first hour is wonderfully claustrophobic, each detail and observation underscored with subtle dread. Ghost finds a package, belonging to the previous ghost writer, which contains photographs that contradict Lang’s account of his undergraduate days. A simple misunderstanding, or something more sinister? The Ghost ventures out onto the island for clues about his predecessor’s death and meets a crotchety hermit (Eli Wallach) who casts suspicion on the official version of events. Mere conspiracy theories or the keen insight of a local who never went to the police, which probably wouldn’t believe him anyway?
Where The Ghost Writer loses steam is when Ghost leaves the island, an enterprise which allows a terrific Tom Wilkinson to enter the plot but accomplishes little else. As Ghost delves further into Lang’s past, he resorts to Google to help him sort out the truth, uncovering details and connections that apparently no one — investigative reporters, oppo researchers, common folk with decent Internet connections — has bothered to sleuth out for the previous decade, an implausible howler in a movie that’s otherwise astute about political realities and the way people in power act and talk.
This is all redeemed by the ending, set at the release party for the finished book, during which the Ghost realizes who has held the upper hand all along and finally decodes the secrets embedded in the original draft of Lang’s memoir. The final scene, in a nod to Chinatown, features bystanders on a London street converging on an accident as the pages of Lang’s original manuscript float past in the wind, their secrets scattered upward into the night for everyone, or no one, to decipher.