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The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski

In Roman Polanski's extraordinary new film, The Ghost Writer, a man with a very low opinion of political memoirs is hired to go over the manuscript of a former British prime minister's autobiography. He has been chosen for the job by the prime minister's wife, who admires his success at ghosting rather more popular projects; perhaps she expects him to take the book's image of her husband down from the pedestal upon which such productions are conceived. At first unwilling to venture into such an unfamiliar field, the Ghost ultimately succumbs to the temptation of a very large payment. (Two hundred thousand dollars does not strike me as a lot of money, but we'll let that pass.) Since time is (somewhat inexplicably) of the essence, the Ghost is immediately transported to a starkly modernist villa on Martha's Vineyard. This is where the former first couple are vacationing or hiding out. 

Presently we learn about the man whose the body is shown at the very beginning of the movie, washed up on the beach. He also was a writer the former prime minister's press secretary. This man is thought to have died either by his own hand or as the result of extreme overintoxication, one way or the other falling from the ferry. He is much missed, but the Ghost slips into his shoes easily enough when the former prime minister is charged by a member of his cabinet with the war crime of handing over terrorist suspects to the United States for waterboarding. The Ghost writes a few effective lines to buy time.

There is much here that makes the Ghost uncomfortable. He prefers to work at a certain distance. He doesn't at all like staying at the villa, into which he is moved when the war-crimes charge is announced. He doesn't like the way in which he becomes enveloped in the political couple's household. He is especially uncomfortable when the prime minister's wife appears to want to sleep with him.

There is much to make the audience uncomfortable as well. The glass wall of the villa's saloon, for example: the fact that the estate is very heavily guarded seems to intensify the vulnerability of anyone sitting in this well-lighted room during a nocturnal storm. The prime minister and his entourage are so accustomed to the presence of security guards that they can no longer imagine being in danger. The audience especially those viewers who have seen a lot of suspenseful thrillers cannot help imagining anything else. When the prime minister's wife dismisses her personal guard, so that he can drive a van round to the trailhead where the Ghost has parked his bicycle, she seems to be radiating invitations to the snipers who must be lurking in the dune grass.

The Ghost Writer is the smash that it is because Mr Polanski has orchestrated its visual impact in such a way as to amplify an understated but deeply-felt menace. The menace never goes away, but once the Ghost really wakes up to it, The Ghost Writer pulls of the neat trick of becoming an action film without any action. Apart from one startling (but not entirely surprising) attack, Mr Polanski keeps the violence offstage. He understands that what makes a thriller interesting is not the mayhem, but the acquisition of information. (We might even say that knifings and knockouts slow real drama down you can't get to the bottom of things if you're unconscious.) The Ghost, for a chance, is no detective; he is not a particularly courageous man at all. But information keeps falling onto his head. In a brilliant variation on the car-chase trope, he is led by an automobile's guidance system straight to a dangerous destination.

It is no surprise to see that Mr Polanski has assembled the perfect cast. Ewan McGregor could not be improved upon as the genial but not entirely focused Ghost, a man not born to suspense who has suspense thrust upon him. Pierce Brosnan captures the "likeable" man who is not really that likeable. Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach fill supporting roles with the aplomb and easy familiarity of the legendary character actors. I liked Kim Cattrall in the role of the prime minister's all-round personal assistant; her impersonation of a certain type of professional woman is quite fully rounded. The source of the film's great tension, however, is indisputably the performance of Olivia Williams, as the prime minister's wife and principal intellectual partner. More can be said about this extraordinary bit of film work later on; for the moment, it's enough to shudder at the thought of Cherie Blair's reaction. 

Everything that happens is photographed exactly right. That alone may explain the fog of danger arising from The Ghost Writer. This classically well-made picture can look Chinatown straight in the eye. (February 2010) 

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