Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is one of the best films I've seen in recent years. It has masterful suspense, wit, humor, excellent casting and acting, fascinating design and music, and a highly relevant story which does not hit one over the head with a message. Yet it seems unlikely, at least in America, to break out beyond the art house hit status of The Hurt Locker and other much-admired and not widely-seen films.
Why? I think the first two words in the lead sentence provide the explanation. It's a Roman Polanski film. And the distributor either doesn't know how to market a film made by so notorious a figure that he is practically a pariah, at least now in America, or has found it to be impossible. It's certainly an intriguing challenge, one that would tax the talents of a Don Draper.
In a real sense, as a filmmaker, Polanski is already a ghostly presence in America. One could note that he hasn't had a big hit here since 1974's Chinatown, which not coincidentally was made before his utterly unacceptable encounter with an underage girl. But one could also note that The Ghost Writer is a more commercial film than the films he's been doing since his exile from the world's movie-making capital of Los Angeles.
The Ghost Writer is a very well-reviewed, and widely reviewed, film, a roman a clef about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Which indicates that it has vibrancy beyond whatever it winds up doing at the domestic box office. It's that good.
It's based on the best-selling novel "The Ghost" by Robert Harris, which was bad enough for Tony Blair. But a book is one thing; a film is quite another. The novel by Harris -- he was a friend of Blair who broke with him over the Iraq War -- is very good. As is the basic story, good enough for me to know the novel well and still enjoy the twists and turns of the film.
Blair, the only Labour Party leader in the history of Britain to win three national elections -- beginning with his Obama-like popular ascension to the office of prime minister in 1997 -- was well on his way to becoming the global statesman of the age before he fatefully threw in with with the seemingly far more conservative Bush/Cheney White House. Together, they invaded Iraq and pursued ruthless tactics in what was called the war on terror.
Which, in the end, left many wondering in astonishment and anger how Blair could have been such a down-the-line, uncritical partner in disastrous policies. And which left Blair himself, struggling to explain, saying that he would have invaded even had he known that the intelligence he'd had spun up to present an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction was illusory, dodging angry crowds of protesters to testify before an official inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War in late January.
But before that, Blair, long the favorite to become the first president of the European Union, found himself last fall in the same city as Polanski. The director was in Zurich because he was in jail there following his shock arrest on a three decade-old sex charge. Blair was in Zurich to meet with Swiss financial and corporate power brokers to try to save his candidacy for the European presidency.
While Polanski, to the surprise of many, was able to complete the production of The Ghost Writer while incarcerated, Blair's time in Switzerland proved less successful. He delivered a speech to appeal to leaders of the continent's dominant center/right faction, arguing that government intervention into markets should not go too far. But leaders from the right still found him too liberal and leaders from the left could not forgive his tight alliance with Bush and Cheney on Iraq and the war on terror.
Harris's story (he co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) provides an answer as to why Blair, Adam Lang in the thinly fictionalized version, threw in with Bush and Cheney. It may be outrageous balderdash, but it is quite logical.
And for many, as Blair undoubtedly knows, a logical explanation will do.
Which is why he, along with Polanski, is quite likely a ghost of what he'd been.
The set-up of the story is seemingly straightforward. The Blair character, Lang, played by former 007 Pierce Brosnan, is on a lecture tour in the U.S. His memoirs, entitled "My Life," after Bill Clinton's memoirs, are coming due. He's gotten a $10 million advance but, as someone unreflective, focused always on the future, he's paid little attention to them, working instead on his foundation and business ventures while a longtime political aide labors away on them.
But the aide, ill-cast as a ghost writer, turns up drunk and drowned, the manuscript a turgid mess. Enter our Hitchcockian protagonist, a professional ghost writer, played by the former Obi-wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor, whose name is never given. While the Ghost, as he's referred to, is bright enough, he's no Obi-wan. He knows little about politics, his stock in trade being dishy, disposable yet popular celebrity bios, his latest tome about a magician entitled "I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered."
The Ghost is fast and facile, just what the doctor ordered. And so, after being swiftly approved in a London meeting with the bluff American publisher -- well-played by a cast-against type Jim Belushi -- and Lang's Washington power lawyer (a coldly ingratiating Tim Hutton), he's off to the publisher's estate on Martha's Vineyard, to which Lang's mini-menage of a government-in-exile has decamped to finish both the memoirs and a big money American lecture tour.
While Lang still has some of the Downing Street-like trappings of power -- the British security detail, the ministerial Jaguar -- his operation has been pared down to a core group of a few secretaries, a senior aide/possible mistress played in Hitchcock blonde mode by Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall, and his aggressively shrewed, resentful wife, brilliantly played by English actress Olivia Williams.
Lang is already becoming a sort of permanent guest, albeit a very special guest. It's not his remote island estate, it's the publisher's. It's not his British political colleagues he turns to for validation in crisis, it's a Condi Rice-like U.S. secretary of state. It's not his Gulfstream jet, or that of the government he heads, in which he travels about America, it's a jet owned and operated by Hatherton, a transnational corporation whose amusing slogan, "A Shelter From Harm," seems more than a little at odds with its standing as a massive military contractor. (Any similarities to Halliburton are entirely uncoincidental.)
No sooner does the Ghost begin working with Lang, drawing him out on reminiscences to inject some blood into the stolid manuscript, than the former prime minister is charged with war crimes for having used Special Air Service commandos to capture British citizens suspected of terrorist activities in Pakistan and turn them over to the anything but tender mercies of the CIA. (This, too, mirrors a current real story.)
The first two-thirds of the film follows the novel pretty faithfully, then the film continues in different ways, if not a different direction. Polanski changes the ending, too, as he did with Robert Towne's Academy Award-winning screenply for Chinatown, a film to which this has more than a few similarities.
As well as differences. Where Chinatown takes place on the expansive landscape of late 1930s Los Angeles, The Ghost Writer starts off relatively insular in London and gets more insular. Even more so than the novel. Where the novel, after a rather spooky GPS-led inquiry on the mainland of Massachusetts, expands the canvass of action to New York, the film turns back inward.
Which is where Polanski clearly wanted it from the beginning. While I saw in my mind, while reading the novel, a fairly impersonal, cool, and detached world, Polanski amps all those qualities up from the beginning.
Polanski's design of the film emphasizes a lone individual, enveloped in gloom, against substantially larger backdrops, impersonal, faceless, menacing. Both the architecture and the machines are rather cold and threatening.
Lang's borrowed island retreat, where most of the action plays out, is, in Polanski's vision, even more desolate than I'd pictured.
The house is concrete and glass, an example of what is called Brutalist architecture. It's really more of a Bauhaus bunker which opens out on a desolate landscape and seascape.
It's no accident that Polanski's production designer won an Emmy Award for a miniseries about the rise of Hitler.
The house is festooned with modern art, almost all of it quite hideous.
And I say this as someone who has a Warhol "Electric Chair" print over my living room sofa. It's one that's deceptively pretty until you realize what it is.
While the Ghost is not unlike Chinatown's J.J. Gittes, a smart man (played by Jack Nicholson) who never quite grasps that he is in over his head, his character may be more like the character in another film of the "New Hollywood" era.
In some ways, The Ghost Writer is really more like The Parallax View, a Warren Beatty film directed by the late suspense master Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men and Klute) that was oddly released at the same time as Chinatown by the same studio, Paramount Pictures.
Like The Ghost Writer, The Parallax View features a smart, rootless writer, something of a cipher, really. He is in over his head, dealing with a complex web of political intrigue involving shadow elements of the government and a globe-spanning corporation, the Parallax Corp. in Parallax View and Hatherton (read real life Halliburton) in Ghost Writer.
For all the starkness of its settings, The Ghost Writer is well-populated with intriguing characters. Polanski, an actor himself, reportedly worked hard with the cast on their line readings. They all responded with memorable work.
Brosnan is excellent as the former prime minister, capturing Blair's boyish charm and charisma. He brings both the high-flown hokum of Reagan and the rather menacing shrewdness of Bill Clinton. One of the very best of the Bonds, Brosnan is able to project both the larger than life quality you would expect and an aching suspicion of his own hollowness.
McGregor is our guide, of course, as the Ghost, and he holds the screen agreeably throughout, intelligently making a series of foolish choices. His character is smart, and he knows it. A bit of an underachiever, and he knows it. Like Lang, he went to Cambridge, too. Unlike Lang, he's a novice in such rarefied air.
He believes that because he is good at establishing rapport, which is what makes him a good ghost writer, that it means he is also able to adopt from his present company the characteristics he needs to win through with such a sophisticated set of players.
Cattrall is fine in the seeming Hitchcock blonde role, playing against her Samantha Jones type. Which is not to say that the camera doesn't linger at times on her swaying rear end, both from the point of view of the prime minister and his ghost, even as she plays the ever efficient aide de camp.
Good as the others in the main cast are, Olivia Williams is the revelation. Or at least she would be if I weren't already familiar with her work, which unfortunately has not received nearly the attention it deserves.
The fact is that Olivia Williams ought to be a big movie star.
It's hard to imagine any actress playing Ruth Lang (our Cherie Blair analogue) as well as Williams. She's very attractive, but is able to play it convincingly plain and real.
As the ex-PM's wife, she is at once off-putting and engaging, bitter and kind, intimidating and vulnerable.
Other standouts, in small roles, include 94-year old Eli Wallach as a longtime Martha's Vineyard resident who tells the Ghost what he needs to know and Morgane Polanski, the director's daughter with his longtime wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, in an amusing role as the receptionist of a faux colonial inn. Robert Pugh is very good as a Robin Cook-like British foreign secretary sacked by Lang for his opposition on Iraq.
And last, but hardly least, the great Tom Wilkinson as a Harvard professor and think tank maven.
All of which represent a series of outstanding choices by Polanski in presenting this classic, deliberately paced tale of suspense.
Polanski's wittiest choice of all may be composer Alexandre Desplat.
You probably recall the 2006 hit film The Queen. Helen Mirren won the Academy Award as best actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth dealing with the death of "the people's princess," Princess Diana.
That came very early in the first of Prime Minister Tony Blair's three terms. Blair, who'd been friendly with the tempestuous Diana, helped the tradition-bound Queen come to grips with what her death meant to people not only in Britain, but around the world.
In the course of that, Blair, portrayed in the earlier film by Michael Sheen, who's made a cottage industry of his Blair portrayals, developed a rather touching relationship with the Queen even as he became the exemplar of what was known as "Cool Britannia."
It was a very different time, a time of hope and change, if you will. And Alexandre Desplat, a French composer whose parents met at UC Berkeley, provided its musical interpretation in the film, earning an Academy Award nomination in the process.
Polanski, shrewdly and no doubt ironically, brought him on to provide the musical score to the Blair character at a very different point in his life.
Reviewers describe Desplat's score as like that of Bernard Herrmann in the Hitchcock films. I collect film scores, and have all of Herrmann's scores. I hear only a little Bernard Herrmann in Desplat's brilliant Ghost Writer score.
It's actually a deceptively sprightly and at times very humorous score, employing lots of pizzicato, frequently playing in ironic counterpoint to what is actually unfolding in the story.
At other times, of course, it is classic suspense music. In the classic sense, not in the modern sense.
The score has a timeless quality to it, as does the film itself.
The Ghost Writer is very contemporary in its story, characterization, and attitudes. But stylistically, it could have been made in the 1960s, '70s, or '80s. The action isn't all jumbled up. People speak in complete sentences. The story unfolds in layers, its meaning revealed over time. Even when you think you've figured out what is happening, you probably haven't.