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The Ghost Writer – Now you see me, Now you don’t.

March 13, 2010

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?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2010 7:05 PM

    Great, great movie, and one that I believe would reward a second watching immensely. There are so many details that take on a whole new meaning once you know how it ends (e.g. the row between Lang and McAra Ruth Lang mentions, which you automatically assume to be about one thing and is probably about something else, etc). And I’m glad I’m not the only one who’d love to see McGregor (definitely an actor with a much greater range than you might expect) as a villain.

    As for your question (how do I do this spoiler-y thing anyway? – SPOILER BLOCK YOUR EYES), I believe she’s checking his recent calls. Since he just told her what he’s found out so far, she’s probably checking if he’s called anyone who might use that information against Lang and/or her. That’s the explanation I came up with after seeing the movie, anyway.

    Grace: Oooohhhh….that totally makes sense!! But he hasn’t mention the call at all at this point.

  2. March 13, 2010 8:08 PM

    Great film. I saw this today and felt it really was a thriller in the classic tradition, so rarely seen these days, imbued with contemporary political concerns. I actually saw this and Green Zone a day apart, and couldn’t help finding the similarities and differences fascinating. Both are films that confront ethical, political issues from the Iraq war, but while Greengrass’ film is all shakycams, sand and disarray, Polanski’s is steady, gliding long shots and insulated elegance. (As oppressive as it often was, I found myself wanting to enter the elegant world of this film, to sit at that hotel bar, to wander the halls of the compound and look at the paintings that adorn its walls.) Mostly I was interested in the very different ways in which they raise their political concerns, but I’ll say no more of that here to avoid any Green Zone spoilers. I also found the parallels to Polanski’s own life interesting, the talk of exile to avoid prosecution.

    Olivia Williams played a key role in Rushmore, which I felt was quite memorable. But to each their own. :) Certainly, her role here is terrific.

    It’s always nice to see the Internet and technology used believably in films, isn’t it? So often, films present us with user interfaces that are designed to look cool, and that don’t behave anything like they do in real life.

    Grace: Haven’t seen The Green Zone yet but I love how you described this film – insulated elegance. I feel like it’s almost a lost art from a lost time – to invoke suspense and mystery from stillness and silence. Everything is so overt nowadays. Subtleties are so rare, and so rarely well done.

    And oh yes, the nod to exile.

  3. March 14, 2010 12:51 AM

    “The film builds instead of unravels.”
    Amazing line. I stopped there for a couple of minutes looking at how many meanings it had.

    I really need to watch this movie, methinks.

  4. March 16, 2010 8:33 AM

    You spoke of wishing to see Ewan McGregor play a villain. Wouldn’t it bee cool to see him cast as the next Tom Ripley?

    Grace: Is there a sequel in the plans?

  5. March 25, 2010 8:37 AM

    This had to be the most satisfying theater experience I’ve had in a while. The “building” as you say paid off massively, and made the ending of this film magnificent. I wasn’t so hot about the beginning, but once he decided to “investigate on his own,” it blew me away. The major twist with the chapters was jaw-dropping.

    • March 25, 2010 8:40 AM

      SPOILER! — Regarding the spoiler alert, that makes sense. I don’t think you’re necessarily over-thinking it. That whole scene is suspect. Maybe she’s alerting Adam Lang that the Ghost knows… I dunno. I had figured out from 15 minutes that it was Lang’s wife that was behind everything, but it wasn’t until the end that I realized how and why.

      Grace: I wonder if it’s deliberately left murky or if there was actually a deeper meaning or if it was overlooked.

  6. April 1, 2010 7:04 PM

    I also thought the film’s storyline was very clever and unforeseeable, but the main problem I had with “The Ghost Writer” was that I didn’t care about any of the characters. Polanski’s directorial style is so cold in this film, which is great for creating the atmospheric effect, but it hampers (at least for me) any possibility of connecting with the players involved. I admit that I was genuinely surprised by the clever twists along the way, but by the end, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Who cares?”

    Grace: wow…I couldn’t care enough!

  7. Anna Hill permalink
    August 12, 2010 1:34 PM

    Does anyone know who painted the abstract paintings used in the movie?

    • Solange permalink
      September 5, 2010 2:04 PM

      I want to know who painted the abstract paintigs used in the movie too ! I ‘d really apreciate it if somebody could reply my question :)

    • Lee permalink
      September 28, 2010 5:44 PM

      I would also like to know who painted these. They have a very striking use of texture and pure pigment.

    • Pat Crowe permalink
      October 9, 2010 8:11 AM

      I wish I knew

    • clauu permalink
      December 13, 2010 1:25 AM

      Cy Twombly :)

    • j red permalink
      January 13, 2011 10:04 PM

      did you ever find out who the artist (s) were for the paintings in the Ghost Writer movie. I was also interested to find out who painted them, but have not been successful in finding out.

  8. Berta permalink
    September 12, 2010 2:39 PM

    I enjoyed the movie, but who are the artists for the contemporary art on the walls and the house’s architect? Fell in love with both!

    • Pat Crowe permalink
      October 9, 2010 8:11 AM

      The red abstract painting was gorgeous. Who painted it?

  9. October 26, 2010 4:33 AM

    beach houses are nice because you can swim anytime you want and the beach is a great view too;;”

  10. Jenean permalink
    November 13, 2010 6:58 PM

    Yes I want to know the painter too! I’ve been looking everywhere!
    Who is it?

  11. Liiiine permalink
    December 15, 2010 9:23 PM

    The artist is called Andrew Wyeth. Or the paintings are influenced by him.

    • Anna Hill permalink
      January 21, 2011 10:17 PM

      I don’t think so, the paintings on his website look nothing like what was used in the movie. There is no mention anywhere that his art was used; something that would most likely be advertised on his own personal site. I’m still looking…

      • February 12, 2012 4:47 PM

        Anna…did you find out who the painter was in the Ghostwriter?


      • Anna permalink
        February 19, 2012 10:30 PM

        No, I never did. I’ve looked on various sites. I love the paintings on the tv show “the good wife” and can’t find those either.


  1. ghost house. « …talk about beautiful things a little bit.

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