Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Ghost Writer

On release, it was impossible to talk about The Ghost Writer. Everything was filtered through a lens of director Roman Polanski's transgressions, interest in which was revived quite close to the film's release. To discuss the film was to discuss Polanski, and more than one critic read more into the experience than what was intended. It was a potential last film, it could be historic, after all.

To be fair, the film is about a man in exile due to crimes which happened several years before, not unlike Polanski. However, former prime-minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is not meant to be Polanski by any means, instead being a slightly smarmier Tony Blair. The ghost writer of the title is Ewan McGregor, brought in to replace the old ghost writer after he kills himself under lightly mysterious circumstances, eventually leading to the uncovering of an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the otherwise quite mundane Lang.

It's actually a clever tactic, making the former Prime Minister as boring as possible. The assignment, in the beginning, is straightforward. The new ghost is brought in to punch up Lang's autobiography because it is, frankly, terrible. It's presented as just a dull job, and constant shots of McGregor sleeping reinforce this. It's funny, because it makes the twists seem all the more interesting, since on the surface we're not looking at a spectacular or interesting man, just another PM. Ho-hum, right?

Polanski, for all his faults, knows how to make a thriller, and I seriously doubt it's even possible for him to make a bad one. So the Ghost Writer isn't a bad thriller. There are twists, it's a slow reveal, and one is often intrigued by just how deep things go. It's something Polanski has done before to great effect, and here it is clearly the work of a master of pacing and atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that master is just going through the motions on this one. To quote one of the characters, the words are all there, they're just in the wrong order. The story is actually good, but the leaps required to hit the right beats don't hold up very well. A key twist relies on a poorly designed website - never, ever a reliable source - and some characters just don't seem to exist, if that makes sense. They're there, they have dialog, but they're not really blessed with personality or interest. Also, while the final shot is beautiful, the questions it prompts are not quite the ones which it intends to.

That said, it's exactly what you expect, a competent thriller made by a guy who could make one in his sleep. This is no bad thing, and even flawed and imperfect there is a good movie here, one which is constantly interesting and compelling. Just not the greatest movie, and maybe that explains why just as much attention was paid to the director's troubles as the film itself.

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