The Ghost Writer – Now you see me, Now you don’t.
If you ever wanted to see a fine, taut, intelligently crafted and expertly built political thriller, here is your chance.
The Ghost Writer (2010) is the finest of such genre. A film so steadily and subtly built that you never run into the cliché of knowing exactly what’s going to happen in the minutes to hours ahead, a ridiculous notion that is often the norm in so called Hollywood “thrillers.” Not here. Director Roman Polanski advances the plot piece by piece, always patient, revealing only as much as the character needs to know, keeping the audience ahead by a hair and no more. The film builds instead of unravels. The suspense ferments instead of hisses. The sense that a bigger picture is at stake, that the puzzle pieces are coming together steadily but surely, looms, and expands.
The plot involves amongst other characters, a well known former Prime Minister of England, Adam Lang, who looks a lot like Tony Blair (Pierce Brosnan), his wife Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams), his mistress Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), and his ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor, who like a real ghost was never given a name. IMDB insists on calling him The Ghost (insert creepy violin strings), and here I’ll oblige.
The Ghost has been hired to write a memoir of Lang. The previous ghost writer died, the current Ghost was told, and he finds out that it happened under mysterious circumstances. The manuscript “needs a lot of work” and is locked in a secured compound in USA, and The Ghost must travel there to work on it. If all this sounds suspicious already, you wonder, and how the hell does someone with a brain gets himself into such a mess, you ask — well, there’s a quarter million dollars at stake for a month of work. Window or aisle seat? On a transatlantic flight, I go for the aisle. Be the boss of your own destiny while stuck in a metal box at 20,000 feet, wouldn’t you say?
Now we’re on an island in America, a chilly ferry ride from the mainland, and the perfect storm of a thriller begins to brew. The island is bare, plagued by a howling wind, with strange hotels and lonely bars that seem to be waiting for something bloody to make them come alive. The Langs stay at a gated beach house with serious looking guards, who reminds me of that in “Shutter Island”, except better dressed. The atmosphere is rainy, cold, and impersonal. Every step forward in the glass house seems to be a worse idea than the previous, yet it seems equally as bad to not keep going.
That is all I will say about the plot. I am so in love with the mastery of plot advancement in this film that I do not wish to spoil it for you in the least. Except to say that there is a sequence involving a car that makes the most ingenious use of GPS, and that Google is used realistically and nicely in a most atmospheric setting, and that ferry ports seem to always carry an innate air of nostalgia, loneliness, and mystery. For something that moves so slow, being on a ferry never seems to be a safe mode of transportation in the movies.
Brosnan and Cattrall do a fine job here. They fit their roles and wear it well. But, it is Williams and McGregor who really stand out. Olivia Williams, who hasn’t been in anything overtly memorable up till now, is a scene stealer here. She embodies the wife of a brilliant actor of a politician who carries resentment, worry, and doubt as a visible chip on her shoulder. She is biting, intelligent, and vulnerable, often all at once. It is a female character not often seen in movies, someone who is not merely a pretty girl, a victim or a bitch, but something in between, something more.
Ewan McGregor has always struck me as a better actor than that he has portrayed. His roles in “Moulin Rouge” and “Star Wars” show his versatility, but I’ve always thought him best as a dramatic actor. He carries an everyman genuineness and yet is simultaneously easily beguiling. Here he is believable but never overwhelming, and makes it all seem so effortless to be The Ghost in a world where no one seems to tell or care about the truth. McGregor has six films in post-production on IMDB. I hope one of them has him playing a villain. With those beguiling eyes…that would be fun, don’t you think?
“The Ghost Writer” is possibly the best thriller you’ll see this year. Yes, we’re only in March, but I am willing to bet it. No matter how you feel about Polanski the person, Polanski the filmmaker is one that you need to respect. There is a calmness and conviction in the way the camera moves, captures, and tells the story. There is a precision and confidence in the pacing and threading of the frames, which by the way reminds me of that of “The Hurt Locker” — never wasteful or embellishing, every frame propels the story forward in a meaningful fashion.
Whether this is a masterpiece will be answered by the test of time. For now though, “The Ghost Writer” is fine and taut, and you owe it to yourself to experience it in person.
p.s. below is a potential spoiler question about the plot…highlight the white space below only if you have seen the film already. DON’T CHEAT!
Q: In the post-dinner scene between Ruth Lang and The Ghost, when they are sitting on the couch having a drink and The Ghost tells Ruth of what he’s found out about the previous ghost’s death, and Ruth asks to borrow his phone to call Adam — she types something into the phone but never calls it, and hurriedly gives it back to him then makes an excuse to leave. The Ghost never looked at his phone after getting it back! I immediately thought that it is a secret message of some sort and will lead to further development, but it was never mentioned from then on. If it really was nothing, why would she change her mind to call for no reason? Am I missing something? Am I over-thinking this? Anyone else catch this?