Friday, February 19, 2010

Ghost Writer (2010, Polanski)

Rating: ***1/2

As assignment-driven as Chinatown (1974) and Ninth Gate (1999), Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) is elegant and assured without being slick and cocky. What’s most remarkable about it, though, is that it manages to be profound while not steering one foot away from its much-threaded generic turf. It’s an extract of a movie thriller. In fact, Tom Wilkinson’s line about “bi-polar relations in a multi-polar world” may serve as a definition of what thrillers have always wanted to embody. They try to navigate in a world of multi-layered and contradictory interests in a way that would divide them into neat oppositions (“we” vs. “them”, at the very least).

Expert as ever in using sound and image, Polanski may have produced his subtlest work to date in The Ghost Writer. As Ewan McGregor’s character agrees to the eponymous assignment, a distant bell chimes, as if warning about haste and greed taking over. The film is embroidered with so many masterful directorial touches, it becomes dazzling without ever resigning from its low-key look. The sudden appearance of the TV-chopper behind Lang’s giant plate-glass window; the ever-lurking bodyguard in the first beach scene between McGregor and Olivia Williams; many other subtle tweaks and turns of the mise-en-scene reveal the hand of a true filmmaker working with a tightly written, exciting material. The final ballet of a paper note being passed from hand to hand, as well as the magnificent last shot, radiate the kind of cinematic suaveness that is so rare we’ve all forgotten it’s actually possible.

PS. The only bit that registered as a over-the-top was Brosnan's PM exchanging hearty grins with a Condi Rice-lookalike. That was the movie's sole brush with a political cartoon.


  1. I'll be interested to see this film as I can't think of a film where Ewan MacGregor's acting hasn't been cringe inducing, asides from 'Trainspotting' (although I've still to see 'Young Adam'). On the basis of your review though it certainly sounds like a film to see so I'll withhold my judgement until I get to the cinema!

  2. Let me know what you think once you see it, I really think it's top-notch moviemaking.

  3. I'm a bit late on the scene, as I only saw the movie last night, but as Ms. Mackenzie hasn't given her impressions yet, I guess the stage is still open. I have to admit that I was rather disappointed in the movie and was even surprised that you had rated it so highly, but on rereading your review now, I didn't find all that much that I could disagree on. This is because my disappointment stemmed mainly from an aspect that you hardly touched upon in your review – namely, the screenplay, which I found rather trite and implausible. Of course I agree that Polanski as a director is in full command of his art, and a top-notch thriller doesn't necessarily have to have a top-notch script – most scripts of Hitchcock films, say, are full of all kinds of implausibilities – but there's only so much I can brush aside and just enjoy the show, and I'm afraid the script for The Ghost Writer exceeded my limits.

    For starters, in order to get the story going in movies of this kind, there has to be some kind of "motivation" that explains why the hero would embark on an assignment that even at the outset seems dangerous and potentially lethal, and it seems pretty unimaginative to me that the only thing modern screenwriters can come up with is some humongous amount of money – 250,000 dollars in this case. This was also the sole motivation provided in two movies of 1999 that shared a similar premise, Polanski's The Ninth Gate and Schumacher's 8MM, and I remember cringing at its mechanicality when I first saw those movies, at close quarters – and here it crops up once again in Polanski. It's not that there's anything particularly implausible about this motivation – after all, money makes the world go round and all that – , it's just that as a viewer I find my intelligence underestimated by such an obvious trick; I can almost hear the screenwriters saying, "Yeah, yeah, we all just want to get this story rolling, so let's just throw in a shitload of money for motivation and get on with it, shall we?"

    What is more, since it's made clear that Ewan McGregor's character doesn't have a family or even a girlfriend to support, I don't see why the lucrative money offer should be all that decisive, given the dangers of the assignment. Sure, living in London isn't cheap, but if McGregor's really a top man in his field, surely he could get his agent to find some decently paid but less risk-laden assignments for him as well? At least Woody Allen had the decency to develop a psychologically plausible framework before sending McGregor off to his dangerous and well-imbursed assignment in Cassandra's Dream...

  4. And speaking of expertise in one's field: when filmmakers choose to make a movie centering on some profession, a bit of preliminary research on that profession would seem advisable. Again, this is not a thing that makes or breaks a movie, but continuous facepalm-inducing moments do undermine our belief in the world it creates. As something of a bibliophile myself, I had to slap my forehead nearly every time Johnny Depp's rare book dealer, supposedly a "number one expert" in his field, strutted onscreen in The Ninth Gate: as far as I recall, he didn't have even a smattering of Latin, his Portuguese was limited to "Olá", and he cracked open 17th-century volumes the way you would handle a Harlequin novel bought at an airport. Now, I know a lot less about the trade of ghostwriters, but hacks though they undoubtedly are, I doubt if even the best of them can manage the kind of wordrate that McGregor seems capable of. At some point I was surprised to learn that McGregor had only known the former PM for three days, since it seemed that they had already written three chapters or so of the memoirs; and shortly after that, McGregor learns that he has to get the 600-page manuscript finished in two weeks – a task that, apparently, he is able to keep.

    And I'm also pretty sure that when a professional reader is faced with the task of reading a 600-page manuscript (the first version of the memoirs) in a few hours, the first thing he does is not to start reading the damn thing aloud, as McGregor does; even at page 600, he still seems to be muttering the words aloud to himself, as if he were semiliterate. I understand that for the purposes of the plot it was necessary for the viewers to hear the words, but why not use a voiceover...?

    There were a lot more details that raised my ire, but I won't bore you with any more of them – except to say that at the end I finally had enough, though not in the two scenes you described (which admittedly were well-crafted), but in what preceded them. If the CIA (or whatever it was) was so keen to protect the vital information hidden in the original manuscript, why on earth did they give Kim Cattrall's character a hint as to where it was contained – a hint that McGregor was able to interpret correctly? Just for the hell of it?

    Again, the screenplay may not be the most important part of a film, but it does need to meet some standards to pass; at least for me, not even excellent direction can salvage a very bad script. Unfortunately, in Polanski's latest efforts – The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, and the current one – the problem has mainly been with the screenplay, so he should pay a bit more attention to that area. (Oliver Twist I haven't seen, but I expect that here the excellence of the source material has helped somewhat :-))

  5. I agree with your reservations to a degree: the reason the movie didn't merit **** in my Ebertesque rating system has something to do with the plot gaps and the general cheapness of the material Polanski is working with.

    I have to say that I had the least problem with the undercooked motivation for McGregor's plunging into his assignment. After all, even Hitchcock was prone to overlooking this aspect in his movies - in some of them, he even had the audacity of throwing a character into a ready-made plot without *any* incentive on his/her part (see the ultimately gratuitous peril Roger O. Thornhill gets himself into in NORTH BY NORTHWEST by timing *snapping his fingers* wrong...). Similar things happen in other Hitchcock movies, as well -- 39 STEPS and LADY VANISHES also have characters that seem to plunge into solving mysteries just for the heck of it).

    The reservations concerning the shennigans of the CIA-or-whaterver-it-was, as shown in GHOST WRITER, are much better founded. I think that towards the end of the movie the real source of the menace becomes irrelevant -- it could be CIA, and it could be the satanic cult from ROSEMARY'S BABY, for all Polanski cares. He's much more interested in creating the sense of walls closing in on someone than in investigating the nature of those walls, so to speak. I'm not sure how much I mind it in his case, though, since his technical and directorial skills are such that they lend meaning and gravity even to the most cheap and airheaded plot concepts -- and I think that's one of cinema's greatest powers.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Michał; I'd still like to comment on this bit:

    After all, even Hitchcock was prone to overlooking this aspect in his movies - in some of them, he even had the audacity of throwing a character into a ready-made plot without *any* incentive on his/her part (see the ultimately gratuitous peril Roger O. Thornhill gets himself into in NORTH BY NORTHWEST by timing *snapping his fingers* wrong...).

    Well, that's just it: Polanski & co. are trying to do the same thing that Hitchcock & co. did so elegantly and effortlessly, but the problem is that their strings are showing, so to speak. As for North by Northwest, I've seen the movie countless times and remember the general outline of the plot pretty well, but when I rewatched the movie recently (after a lapse of perhaps seven years), I found that the one part that I had forgotten completely was the way the whole shenanigan got started – which of course testifies to just how well it was done. Now, I was of course wrong in implying that Polanski should have made some elaborate rewrites in the script to make the motivation seem more "plausible" – after all, what's the point of padding twenty minutes or so of "development" into a movie where action is the thing? – but I do wish he and his screenwriters had the audacity of throwing their character straight into the action like Hitchcock did, instead of this embarrassing "see, see, here's the motivation" shtick.

    In the latter part of the movie Polanski does admittedly show audacity vis-à-vis the plot, making it largely irrelevant, as you demonstrated so well – but at the same time the movie never quite loses the sense that it's about Something Important as well. To use another comparison to Hitchcock, the Master once famously observed that while other directors' films are slices of life, his are slices of cake; and Polanski's problem here seems to me that he wants to have both kinds of slice and eat them as well :-)

  7. I can agree with that. The balance between caring and not caring about the supposed meaning of the plot is *slightly* off in GHOST WRITER.