Thursday, September 23, 2010

Roman Polanski | The Ghost Writer

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Harris and Roman Polanski (screenplay, after the novel by Robert Harris), Roman Polanski (director) The Ghost Writer / 2010

Just when it appeared that Roman Polanski had disappeared from an active film career—after a five year hiatus in directing a full-length feature film and imprisonment in a Swiss prison for his crimes in the USA in 1977 (see My Year 2009)—the noted Polish director has appeared to have outdone Houdini, recovering his art in an elegantly complex political thriller, The Ghost Writer, a work at once visually stunning, excitingly scripted, and heighted by a well-crafted score with near perfect sound.

It is hard to imagine that Polanski was forced to edit this film in prison, but he has always battled adversity in his work, and it is apparent that when he is cornered, he pours his life into his art.

A man (Ewan McGregor), named throughout the film only as The Ghost, has been hired, with much resistance on his part, to replace the former Ghostwriter to the British ex-Prime Minister, Adam Lang. Lang refers to him only as "Man."

The previous Ghostwriter has been mysteriously killed, having evidently fallen overboard on a ferry trip between Martha's Vineyard, where Lang (mischievously played by Pierce Brosnan) has a home, and the mainland. The Ghost, who lives in Great Britain, must make the transcontinental trip to the island to meet with Lang and rewrite the memoir in just a few weeks.

Although Lang's lovely home is as moderne as they come, it might as well be a creepy Victorian mansion the way Polanski infuses it with dark intrigue. Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) screams out at someone upstairs, while Lang's blonde secretary (Kim Cattrall) cheerily organizes and protects her employer while simultaneously oozing sexuality. Even the cook and driver seem suspicious. The Ghost is permitted to read Lang's original version of his memoir only in one room, and is unable to take any of its pages from the house, where it is locked away in a code-protected cabinet. An attempt to download the manuscript on his own computer sets the house afire with warning bells. As The Ghost proclaims this haunted tomb-like domicile is "Shangri-La in reverse"; "I'm aging."

No sooner has The Ghost met Lang and begun the arduous task of uncovering the man's past, than the former politician is being attacked in the press for having been involved in the torture of prisoners in the Iraqi war. Clearly based on Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, the Langs are an odd couple to whom Adam serves as likeable performer of Ruth's deep intellectual insights.

With the attacks in the press and television come new responsibilities for The Ghost, as he is drafted to write a press release about the incidents, and, soon after, told to leave his hotel. Lang, in danger of being arrested if he returns to England (in a situation that Polanski must have devilishly relished in the script Lang is forced to remain in the USA, while Polanski continues to be trapped in France and other European countries) is trotted off to meet with US officials, while The Ghost broods over the entire change of events and particularly the increasing attentions of Ruth.

Like any good story by Hitchcock—a mentor who Polanski revealed as far back as Rosemary's Baby—the already deteriorating situation grows even more murky when The Ghost discovers in his room, the former Ghost Writer's room as well, hidden photographs of Lang and other figures taken from their Cambridge University (Blair went to Oxford) college days, when he was involved in the theater. One date on these photographs stands out: Lang had met his wife some years before he claims he met her in his book. The name and address of another figure intrigues the writer, and a telephone number scrawled across this material turns out to belong to the man, a former aid, who has leaked the information about Lang's war crimes.

Curious about the former Ghost Writer, The Ghost takes a bicycle trip around the island, uncovering a old man (Eli Wallach) who reveals the body was found too far away to have washed up from the ferry and reports that a woman living near the beach had seen flashlights on the night of his death. Mysteriously, she fell in her home soon after and remains in a coma.
Although The Ghost may now be haunting the Langs, he is, strangely enough, completely innocent and therefore doomed to repeat the pattern of his predecessor. Worried about his absence, Ruth comes to bring him home, whereupon he tells her all that he has discovered. She, it is clear, is highly troubled by the news, and, after a long walk in the rain, returns home to crawl into The Ghost's bed.

Determined to leave the house and his now demanding clients, The Ghost discovers that the car, loaned to him by the chauffeur, has been programmed to take someone via the ferry to a house in the mainland. The house turns out to belong to one of the figures in the pictures of Adam and his friends, Paul Emmett (icily played by Tim Wilkinson), who poses as a professor but, in actuality—we soon learn—works for the CIA. As The Ghost begins his return back to the island, he is chased by a car, and it is clear that he is nearly doomed, like the first Ghost Writer, to drown. He escapes by leaping from the ferry just as it pulls away.

But again his innocence betrays him. He calls the mysterious telephone number once more, and Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton), the man behind Lang's downfall, answers, soon after rushing to the terminal hotel where The Ghost is hiding out. It is now apparent, he declares, that Lang has been a CIA operator, explaining why all Lang's political decisions have paralleled those of the US.
It is suddenly clear that The Ghost is "in the gap," caught between both sides, even if those perimeters are not yet clear. Having now told both Ruth Lang and Kroll everything, The Ghost has little chance to survive.

But the scriptwriters still have some tricks hidden away, as an angry Lang, returning by airplane, picks up the straying Ghost and lectures him for his stupidity. As they arrive back on the Vineyard, Lang is shot and killed by a purportedly angry father of a fallen soldier , while the other figures scatter in fear and horror. Although determined to erase himself from what remains, The Ghost has no choice, perhaps, but to finish what he started, and the film ends with Lang's memoir being published.

Secretly invited to a book-launching party by Lang's former secretary, The Ghost hides in the crowd while Lang's wife champions her late husband. The Ghost has brought the original manuscript as a present to the woman who once so carefully locked it away each evening. After all, he muses, she had been so attentive to it, perhaps it should belong to her. Oh, it wasn't me, she demurs. They were afraid there might be some incriminating information in it, something about the "beginnings."

Suddenly the truth becomes apparent in The Ghost's formerly confused mind. Escaping to another room, The Ghost takes the first lines of the early chapters—chapters which he edited out—piecing them together to reveal that it was Ruth, not Lang himself, who had joined the CIA early on. Her advice to her husband was informed by the Americans throughout Lang's life. Was this hidden puzzle Lang's secret attempt to redeem himself or an embedded admission?

Despite all he now understands, The Ghost is still a fool, as he writes the phrases he has discovered on a piece of paper and passes it forward through the crowd to Ruth. She now knows that he knows. But surely it does not matter. The Ghost was dead before the story began. And this Ghost, it is apparent, living only in the shadows of others, was never, as Ruth taunted him, able to do anything of his own.

As he exits the bookstore, manuscript still in hand, a car rushes forward. In a brilliant cinematographic decision, Polanski does not show the man being hit, but focuses the camera in the opposite direction as the pages of the manuscript, one by one, blow down the street, ensuring that that truth will never come to knowledge. As in Polanski's Chinatown—as in so many of his films—evil easily wins.

Los Angeles, April 8, 2010
(c) Copyright 2010 by the International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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