Mark Reviews Movies

THE GHOST WRITER

2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Robert Pugh, Timothy Hutton

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference)

Running Time: 2:08

Release Date: 2/19/10 (limited); 2/26/10 (wide)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 26, 2010

I am torn on The Ghost Writer, which has important, incisive, and timely things to say but says them in the form of a generic thriller, filled with shadowy, suited figures of questionable origin, cars with tinted window trailing our hero, and characters with shady pasts coming to light at opportune times. Perhaps this is the safest way to make such a blatant political statement with such inflammatory accusations about very specific people, but on the other hand, playing it safe seems disingenuous in light of what The Ghost Writer has to express.

The political background is the response to investigations of activities during the Global War on Terrorism. No real names are ever used in the film, however, the movie focuses on the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, who worked closely with the previous administration of the United States in the invasion of Iraq and, at the point the movie occurs, allegedly knew of torture and condoned its use in interrogations. There's probably no need to expand upon that to shed some light about the subjects whom screenwriter Robert Harris (adapting his own novel with director Roman Polanski) is implying.

In the movie, the former prime minister is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), whose memoirs are the current most-talked-about event in publishing. The body of Lang's ghostwriter has been found on a beach a few miles away from Lang's island hideaway off Massachusetts.

Our protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor, an unnamed writer dubbed the Ghost in the credits, takes over the gig with a handsome payment and a looming deadline. His job is to make readable a long-winded first draft that puts him to sleep during his first read.

He also stumbles upon some information that his predecessor had assembled for research that puts a massive hole in Lang's version of the story of the politico's political past.

The movie fascinates in its details of Lang's inner circle. His loyal assistant (Kim Cattrall) and her staff ensures that any news concerning their boss is handled immediately, especially when an old political rival (Robert Pugh) reveals that Lang may have sanctioned the torture of terror suspects under interrogation. Trying to keep a professional distance from his subject, the Ghost offers an off-the-cuff response to the allegations, which turns into the Lang party's official stance on the issue.

The Ghost has been staying at a local hotel—its only visitor, until the new hits naturally—and when the assistant tells him he will now be staying at Lang's estate for security reasons, he argues that he must keep his distance and not become involved. As his statement is read on the air in the background, the assistant pauses for a moment before reminding him that he is now in the deep of it.

Polanski keeps this unwilling insider's perspective for the entirety of the plot's exposition revelations at the Lang compound. Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) becomes essential to our and the writer's understanding of Lang, who maintains the charming, charismatic personality of his political persona, until, of course, a topic with which he is uncomfortable arises. The Ghost discovers this the hard way when he plays the sincere innocent, asking Lang about his past life as an actor in college. Lang rages that doesn't want that in the book; it's what his opponents used to say of him in the political field—just an actor.

Brosnan is quite good in the role, which could have easily ventured into caricature but comes forward as a unique, if familiar, character. Lang is only familiar as a type, though, and, importantly, not as a satirical view on Lang's real-life, disguised counterpart, which would have been distracting. The details of the character and his legal dilemma are enough.

McGregor is also solid as our point-of-entry to this world, but it's Williams who shines brightest in a tricky role as Lang's long-ailing, supportive wife. Williams' vulnerability conveys a hidden knowledge of events, and her strength forces us and the Ghost to realize that it will remain so if she has anything to do with it.

Polanski's treatment of the internal scrambling and the media's field day is absorbing (As much as I hate to bring up the director's personal background, there are a few moments that compel us to recall it, like Lang's lawyer (Timothy Hutton) telling the disgraced politician that he cannot return to the United Kingdom and must remain in the US (ironic, then, that)). Years ago we'd view it as satire, but it's amazing what the onslaught of 24-hour news can do to perspective. The third act, though, involving the writer's trip to visit an old colleague of Lang's (an intimidating Tom Wilkinson) and a subsequent chase, is quite a letdown (maybe not the former element but definitely the latter).

I am close to recommending The Ghost Writer for so many reasons, and yet I simply cannot. The setup is the stuff of fantastic political exploration, which makes the generic payoff all the more disappointing.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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