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BERLIN — Roman Polanski is a filmmaker who could envelop an old lady’s stroll along a boulevard with a sense of anxiety and dread, so it’s a little odd that he hasn’t made more thrillers in his career. “The Ghost Writer,” an out-and-out thriller with international politics and war crimes as its background, gives him a springboard to take a deep dive into all the moody atmosphere, breathtaking betrayals, words loaded in double meanings and heart-stopping threats that make the genre so cinematic.
This is certainly one of the director’s most commercial films in a while, perhaps since his great thriller “Chinatown,” although a comparison to that film with its Robert Towne screenplay so rich in early 20th century California social and political history would not serve “The Ghost Writer” well. This is a slicker, shallower exercise. It’s hypnotic as it unfolds, but once the credit roll frees you from its grip, it doesn’t bear close scrutiny.
Summit Entertainment has a sure-fire boxoffice hit domestically. The film should do equally well in overseas territories. It didn’t need the publicity boost of Polanski’s well-chronicled legal woes, but one of the peculiarities of our world is that this can only help.
In “The Ghost Writer,” Polanski most clearly means to evoke Hitchcock. Like the master, Polanski builds his scenes through ominous music, the rhythms of his editing, a heightened sense of place and a central figure, an innocent, who struggles to gain control of a living nightmare.
It’s one of the story’s amusing conceits that this figure is a writer. Not an investigative journalist or high-minded novelist, mind you, but a guy who “ghosts” celebrity memoirs. His last one was about a magician.
This time the ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) hits the jackpot — only he constantly wonders, What have I gotten myself into? The jackpot is a former British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and it’s a quick job with a lucrative payday.
He has two reasons to worry. Moments after landing the job, a former cabinet minister accuses Lang of authorizing the illegal rendition of British subjects for torture by the CIA. Secondly, he is the second writer on the job. The first one, Lang’s longtime aide, drowned under suspicious circumstances. Had he stumbled upon a dark secret in Lang’s life that cost him his life?
So the ghostwriter — he is not given a name — confronts a manuscript in sore need of rewriting plus the possibility that it contains a hint of what may have caused its writer’s death. He also confronts an unusual working arrangement.
It seems the ex-PM is holed up in a seaside town on an island off the eastern U.S. The Lang compound has an icy decor and a kind of sterile warmth against wintry weather that pounds the shore with winds and rain. The former British leader is cut off from the world, living in a security bubble with a frosty wife Ruth (Olivia Williams); an aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall), who may be his mistress; and an always present if not oppressive security detail.
The drumbeat from the outside world over the war crimes allegations hits the compound with greater force than the storms, bringing protestors and reporters. The writer struggles to make sense of the small contradictions in his client’s story, mixed signals from his wife and a perceived threat lurking “out there” that never quite reveals itself.
This is not the kind of thriller that requires a lot of action. Rather, unease creeps into every word and deed. The very shape and feng shui of the house’s interiors feel all wrong. Every human being the ghostwriter encounters seems to be dealing from the bottom of the deck.
There is another ghost here too, that of Tony Blair. Lang happens to share many characteristics with the former British PM especially an all-too-cozy relationship with the American president that threatens his legacy. Polanski’s co-writer, Robert Harris, who also wrote the novel on which the script is based, is a political journalist who was once close to Blair.
In the press notes, Harris pleads his work is fiction even as he is quick to point out his connection to Blair and his wife. So he’s having it both ways. So, ultimately, does the film.
McGregor hits all the right notes as a man with a conscience and sense of professional pride who is in way over his head. He’s smart but not too smart and doesn’t always make the right moves. Brosnan gets the politician’s arrogance perfectly as well as the duplicity lurking so close under the surface. Williams nearly steals the show as the wily, controlling wife that senses her control is at last slipping.
The film benefits from cameo appearances from Jim Belushi, Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson that propel the anonymous writer’s hasty investigation into his client. Alexandre Desplat’s music prowls around underneath the scenes, channeling Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock, while Pawel Edelman’s cinematography emphasizes cool colors and a barren seaside landscape.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival — Competition (Summit Entertainment)
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Alain Sarde and Robert Benmussa present an R.P. Films, France 2 Cinema, Studio Babelsberg, Runteam III Ltd. production
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Jim Belushi
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Roman Polanski, Robert Harris
Based on the novel by: Robert Harris
Producers: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde, Timothy Burrill
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Albrecht Konrad
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editor: Herve de Luze
Rated PG-13, 128 minutes
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