A well-crafted, conventional paranoid thriller from Roman Polanski

“Ghost Writer” (2010) does not have the resonances with l’affaire Polanski that “Tess” (or “The Pianist”) did, beyond having a man on the run (as Polanski was as a child whom the Nazis would have exterminated had they caught him, and fleeing the imminent reneging of a plea bargain in LA).


It is awhile into the movie that the titular ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) turns into a sort of action hero evading spooks following him after he starts more than suspecting that his predecessor was murdered. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much every “paranoid thriller” shows that the seeming paranoia is justified, that is, that there is a real conspiracy. (The only sort-of exception to the rule I can think of is Coppola’s “The Conversation” in which Gene Hackman seems to have gone from suspicious to paranoid.)

The Ghost is taken to a high-security High Modernist beach house on or just off Cape Cod. A lengthy manuscript exists, both the flash drive and the printout are secured in a safe tied to alarms that shut down the house. The Ghost thinks the manuscript too dry and sets out to make it more interesting.

Ghost Writer.jpeg

Initially, he meets the chief of staff, played with restraint by Kim Catrall, but soon the ex-Prime Minister, Andrew Lang (Pierce Brosnan) shows up. The tension between his executive assistant and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems the brains of the family with the keenest political instincts, is soon supplemented by moves to indict him for war crimes (authorizing torture) in the international tribunal at the Hague. Being on American soil, he is safe from extradition, since the US only urges prosecution of crimes against humanity and conducted ones after the defeat of Germany and Japan, but maintains impunity because American intentions are always good (by definition).

The Tony Blair figure also needs to be on American soil so that the ghost can drive to the house of a senior Harvard professor of foreign relations (Tom Wilkinson), and so that the British ambassador to the UN, appointed by Lang and a long-time associate of Lang’s, can get to him. There are some red herrings and —what is the opposite, a green herring? And the obligatory Ewan McGregor nude scene (not full-frontal this time) and bedding one or more of Lang’s women (the suspense is which one or whether he will bed them both). And a corporate jet from a company called Hatherton (clearly meant to resonate with a company headed by Dick Cheney of which he did not divest his holdings until long into the war in Iraq he urged and Tony Blair joined).

There is no discussion between Lang and his ghostwriter of the decision to invade Iraq. For that matter, I don’t recall the ghost asking the ex-PM if he authorized torture.

The ghost does have a very ominous, Hitchcockian conversation with an old man down the beach (played by nanagenerian Eli Wallach).

The three very interesting DVD bonus features each give away practically everything about the plot and at least two of them remark that the ending was not scripted.

Having begun (more or less) with the subject of craftsmanship, I will end by lauding the craft of the movie: not just the direction and the acting by a superb cast, but the cinematography of Pawel Edelman (Ray, The Pianist, Katyn), and the incongruous music provided by Alexandre Desplat (Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox). The adaptation by Robert Harris (Enigma, Archangel) of his own novel or the novel itself is the weakest link.

©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

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