Ghost writers are rarely thanked for their work and quickly forgotten. I have a friend that does this as a profession. They do the work, their job, and disappear to work on the next project. Shifting from one patient to the next, like Doctors, uninvolved emotionally; they are out for themselves, which is not a bad thing. Such is the case of the character played by Ewan McGregor (who does a really fine job here), who is simply referred to as The Ghost on IMDB.com, in Roman Polanski’s newest bit of cinematic story trickery The Ghost Writer. In fact, at one point when our hero is asked which side he’s on, he simply says his own.
The Ghost Writer shows that Polanski still has it as a director, which we probably all guessed at and features Pierce Brosnan as a British Prime Minister, in a really fine performance, which maybe we wouldn’t have guessed at. He’s always been a solid, but here all aspects of Brosnan that I’ve grown used to, disappear. This is sure to earn him talk of a Best Supporting Oscar nod…at least from me. And the rest of the cast is stellar, including his wife Olivia Williams who gets one of the most ghastly and powerful close-ups of any actress I’ve seen in quite some time and creeping in on the side lines is Tom Wilkinson.
But The Ghost Writer suffers from one of the things that a lot of films suffer from these days. Yes, its an interesting premise. Yes, the characters are absorbing. Sure, the dialogue is sharp. Polanski, you still have it. But amidst all of this sweet nectar, the story still feels the need to stretch and ask you to believe something silly, even the most minor of things, in order for the writers to introduce the next clue. The theory that simpler is better is lost. And you’ll notice that even though these scenes are cleverly thought out through performance and direction, they can’t help but come across as staged and false. No one can save that.
This is all unfortunate because you don’t feel like you’re taking a journey with the main character; instead it feels like the director is playing a game with the Ghost and you. Certainly an entertaining and gratifying game. A master gamesmen, if there was one. But because of these story faults the whole falls short of what it could have been, for me anyway. Though it’s certainly better than any potboiler, political mystery movie I’ve seen in a long time (The Insider and State of Play excluded.)
The good thing is that there are sequences and scenes that Polanski crafts, including the unforgettable final 10 minutes of the film, that are so effective you forget the leaps you have to take to get there. He squeezes witty comic relief out of the silent servants that inhabit this strange world. The world: the way Polanski uses open space to make our hero seem more trapped, like a mouse in a field, there’s no place to hide from the hawk. Ewan McGregor makes his confident mouse so grounded and wrapped up in all this that you believe even when you start to wonder otherwise.
These brief moments of directorial and actorly genius gave me chills of excitement, not necessarily because the characters were overcoming the biggest of insurmountable obstacles, but because the game was so well played. Like Charlie Kaufman learns in Adaptation, wow’em in the third act and you’ve got a hit. I was “wowed”, especially by the last 6 shots of the film. Pretty specific I know. (My count might be off. Playing by memory here.)