After making a major comeback with 2002’s The Pianist which won Roman Polanski an Oscar for Best Director as well as the Palme D’or. Polanski was on top as he took a break and returned to filmmaking for 2005’s adaptation of Oliver Twist. After contributing a short for 2007’s To Each His Own Cinema, Polanski was preparing a project about Pompeii that fell apart due to the actor’s strike in 2007. Yet, the strike gave Polanski a chance to create another project that was in line with some of his other films in a political thriller called The Ghost Writer.
Based on Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, The Ghost Writer tells the story of a ghostwriter hired to write and complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister. During the process, the ghostwriter uncovers a dark secret relating to the prime minister as well as what happened to the previous ghost writer. Directed by Roman Polanski with a screenplay written by Polanski and the book’s novelist Robert Harris. The film recalls all of Polanski’s themes of fear and intrigue while bringing humor to his own imprisonment situations including the recent troubles he had in 2009 over his 1977 statutory rape charge in the U.S. Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Robert Pugh, Eli Wallach, and Tom Wilkinson. The Ghost Writer is a chilling and entertaining suspense-thriller from Roman Polanski.
An unnamed ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is called upon by publishers to help write and complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Under the instructions of publisher John Maddox (James Belushi) and Lang’s lawyer Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton), the ghost writer travels to Martha’s Vineyard in the U.S. to meet with Lang about the memoir. The ghost writer meets Lang’s assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall) who gives him details about where to stay nearby and what to do with the copy of the memoirs. Even as the six-hundred page memoir proved to be a challenge for the writer as he also meets Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams).
Knowing that the previous writer had died mysteriously while his body was found washed ashore at a nearby beach. After meeting Lang and discussing with him about what to write, Lang is suddenly hit by a scandal relating to war crimes as he’s targeted by former colleague Rycart (Robert Pugh). Forced to stay in the U.S. and not go anywhere where he’ll be arrested, Lang goes to Washington D.C. to meet with the vice-president as Amelia and Kroll join him while trying to handle the scandal. The ghost writer reluctantly moves into the Lang home where he finds photos and documents relating to Lang‘s years in Cambridge. After finding some clues about when Lang really joined the Labour party, the ghost writer wants to know more about the man who previously worked on the memoir as he went around the island where he meets an old man (Eli Wallach).
Realizing that the old man’s clues about the currents along with Ruth’s stories about her early years with Lang. The writer learns about the pictures that the previous writer had and what happened to him the day he died. He decides to go into Massachusetts to meet with Lang’s old Cambridge schoolmate Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) about Lang and the previous writer who went to meet him. Instead, Paul claims he didn’t know Lang that well as well as not meeting the previous writer. The writer suddenly realized he’s up to something as he’s being chased while he calls the mysterious number in the back of one of the pictures. What he learns from the man revealed to be the caller is someone who knows what is happening as the writer pieces on what is really going on and why Lang is targeted for crimes he supposedly committed.
The film is about a man hired to complete the memoirs of a politician only to find some things in this man’s life that doesn’t make any sense along with the death of his predecessor. That plot description does bring ideas of what a thriller or suspense film could be if its told in a conventional manner. Yet, in the hands of a master like Roman Polanski. He plays with the conventions but also allows those conventional ideas to be toyed with while he’s most interested in what this man is trying to discover.
Polanksi and co-screenwriter Robert Harris create a thriller that allows this unnamed character to enter the world of a politician that is being caught up by a scandal. At the same time, he meets associates such as an assistant who is possibly having an affair with the politician along with the politician’s icy, burned out wife. There’s also individuals outside of the Lang home that the writer meets that are very mysterious such as a man revealed to be a war veteran who lost his son and an old associate of Lang who claims to have never really known Lang. What happens is that with the possible exception of Lang’s assistant, the people that the writer interacts with are people who are very mysterious.
Notably the character of Ruth who is this neglected wife that is starting to unwind due to the home she’s living in along with the chaos of the scandal her husband is dealing with. When she and the writer are alone together with only a few people working at the house including security, there is definitely an idea of what is going to happen. Yet, the way Polanski presents the situation is through some subtle humor knowing it’s a cliché of what is going to happen. The screenplay also includes some witty dialogue including an exchange between Ruth and Amelia about who is to meet Lang first. Lang is also a complex character as a man dealing with scandal while wanting to give the public a story that will put him a place in history. The overall screenplay is truly superb from Polanski and Harris.
Polanski’s direction is truly mesmerizing in every scene he creates from a simple dramatic moment where not much is happening to the feeling of terror when something is about to happen. It is clear that from the first shot of the film where it’s all about an abandoned car in the middle of a ferry that it’s a Polanski film. Polanski makes it clear that objects such as the 600-page manuscript of Lang’s memoirs play an important part to the story. Even as it brings clues to the mystery of who Lang is as well as what all of Lang’s connection with the war crimes he’s accused of along with what the writer’s predecessor discovered. The way Polanski plays the mystery is by creating a sense of dread but play around with what is expected in the genre. He also doesn’t go for any tricks to scare people while doesn’t underplay the drama.
While the film is set in London and parts of Massachusetts, it’s all shot mostly in Germany where it plays both London and the towns of Massachusetts while there are some exterior shots on location in Massachusetts by a second unit group. Still, Polanski allows the locations to help set a mood of where the characters are trapped in a place inside of an island not really knowing where they are. It’s also a chance for Polanski to bring humor to his own situations of being imprisoned and not being allowed to travel to certain places. For its mixture of humor and light drama, Polanski still brings suspense and intrigue to the film right to its ending which is a surprising moment. Yet, it’s done in a Polanski fashion since the mystery is finally solved and that’s it. Overall, Polanski’s direction is truly hypnotic and entrancing as the famed Polish director proves once again that he’s a master in the world of filmmaking.
Cinematographer Pawel Edelman does an excellent job with the film’s eerie yet cold cinematography as there is not a lot of sunlight in the film. Even as it’s dominated by rain and gray skies for many of the film’s daytime exterior settings along with more chilling nighttime scenes where the look is about where the character is. The interior shots are truly wonderful from the lush look of the inn that the ghost writer was staying to the spacious though broader look of the Lang estate as Edelman’s work is superb.
Editor Herve de Luze does a wonderful job with the editing of the film by creating an effective yet leisured pace for the entirety of the movie. Even as de Luze creates suspense in the editing by maintaining a rhythm that builds up the chills without doing any fast cutting. Even as he slows things down for the drama while creating subtle moments in the cutting for the little moments of suspense. Production designer Albecht Konrad, along with set decorators Bernhard Henrich and Ulli Isfort, does an amazing job with the art direction. Notably in recreating Berlin as London along with the small towns as Martha’s Vineyard including the natural look of the inn that the writer stays along with the posh look of the Lang estate. Costume designer Dinah Collin does a very good job in the costumes from the casual clothes that the writer wears to the long clothes that Ruth wears.
The visual effects by Jens Dunkel along with various team members is brilliant for the minimal use needed to create the look of the towns as if it’s shot in Martha’s Vineyard . Sound editor Thomas Desjonqueres and mixer Jean-Marie Blondel do a superb job with the film’s sound work from the cool air of the locations they’re in to the sounds of helicopters and cars all over the location. Even in the sparse moments when the writer is looking around the house. The film’s score by Alexandre Desplat is definitely one of the film’s highlights. Featuring Desplat’s trademark chime flourishes and soothing string arrangements, the score plays to some of the film’s light-hearted moments with its mid-tempo pieces. For the film’s suspenseful and heavier scenes, it has a bombastic approach to the score as Desplat creates another superb score that belongs with his already rich catalog.
The casting by Fiona Weir is amazing for the memorable performances from actors big and small. Notable small performances include Soogi Kang and Lee Hong Thay as the Langs’ servants, Tim Faraday as Ruth’s bodyguard Barry, Morgane Polanski as the inn receptionist, Jon Bernthal as the writer’s agent Rick, and David Rintoul as the stranger whom the writer encounters at the inn. Other notable appearances from more well-known actors include James Belushi as publisher John Maddox, Robert Pugh as Lang’s old friend Rycart, Timothy Hutton as Lang’s lawyer Sidney, and Eli Wallach in a great cameo as an old man who reveals something to the ghost writer.
Tom Wilkinson is superb as Paul Emmett, a mysterious professor who went to Cambridge with Lang as Wilkinson brings a calm yet cool approach to the character who is very evasive. Though it’s a small role from Wilkinson, he definitely creates a memorable performance from the veteran actor. Kim Cattrall is very good as Amelia, Lang’s assistant who shows the writer what to do with the manuscript while bring some witty humor through the dialogue she’s given. Olivia Williams is excellent as Ruth Lang, the neglected wife of Adam Lang who is dealing with her diminished role along with the chaos surrounding her husband as she befriends the writer.
Pierce Brosnan is really good in a small but crucial role as Adam Lang. While it’s a character that features elements of former British prime minister Tony Blair, Brosnan definitely brings some charm to a shady man who is also evasive but also willing to play the role of somebody famous. Brosnan also succeeds in the fact that he can be very ruthless during a confrontational scene with Ewan McGregor as it’s definitely Brosnan at his finest. Ewan McGregor gives one of his best performances to date as the unnamed title character. McGregor delivers an everyman quality of a writer unsure of what he’s doing while realizing he’s entering into some serious trouble. McGregor definitely sells the fear and determination of a character that just wants to find the mystery while knowing that he is going to make stupid decisions. It’s definitely McGregor giving a performance that is needed for a film like this.
The Ghost Writer is an engaging, entertaining, and masterfully-crafted thriller from Roman Polanski. Featuring a great ensemble cast led by Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan along with wonderful supporting performances by Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, and a cameo by Eli Wallach. It’s a film that definitely plays to the ideas of what a suspense-thriller should be and how it emphasizes on characters and intrigue without any of the tricks in a lot of mainstream films. For fans of Roman Polanski, this is a chance to see a master do what he does best as he creates a film that definitely lives up to his legendary career. In the end, The Ghost Writer is a smart, thrilling, and entrancing film from Roman Polanski.
Roman Polanski Films: Knife in the Water - Repulsion - Cul-de-Sac - The Fearless Vampire Killers - Rosemary’s Baby - Macbeth (1971 film) - (What?) - Chinatown - The Tenant - Tess - (Pirates) - Frantic - Bitter Moon - Death and the Maiden - The Ninth Gate - The Pianist - Oliver Twist (2005 film) - Carnage - (Venus in Fur) - (Based on a True Story) - (An Officer and a Spy) - (The Palace)
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