A vibrant, humane, nerve-jangling political thriller, The Ghost Writer, for which Roman Polanski richly deserved the best director prize he won at Berlin, is based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, to whom, along with Polanski, the superlative script is credited. I know, I know: One cannot call this art; rather, it is artful entertainment—but what brilliant entertainment. Suspense doesn’t pop up here and there; it is sustained, and its cumulative effect, before a heartbreaking finish, is to give the viewer cardiac arrest. Without manipulative fast cuts or glib gore.
Pierce Brosnan, in the performance of a lifetime, plays a vapid, always cheerful-for-the-camera, but thoroughly rotting former British prime minister, Adam Lang, whose memoir, still in need of redaction, seems to have cost the life of the ghost writer his publisher assigned to the project. Lang and his wife, an also biblically named Ruth, live now on a U.S. island, where the new “ghost,” who is utterly anonymous except for the designation “Ghost,” joins them to bring in the manuscript in publishable form in a few weeks. The point is made that Ghost has no children, indeed, no family connections of any kind. We may say, I think, that Ghost does not exist, that no publisher would in the midst of such a violent outcome as drowning (officially suicide, likely murder) replace his predecessor so close to the finish line; but what does that mean? Our nameless protagonist, who ends up investigating Lang, is really showing us what isn’t being investigated; what Ghost patiently brings to light is what will never come to light. We get to see what a sordid mess exists behind an ex-politician’s Pepsodent smile.
There is indeed much to investigate. How did Lang, with no early interest in politics, get to where he did? What role did Ruth play in his political ascension, and who or what was behind her? And what of these charges that the World Court has begun to investigate, that Lang was involved in the kidnapping and torture of presumed Arab terrorists? The eye sees much, but so little compared to all that is in play.
Normally one of my least favorite actors, Ewan McGregor charmingly plays Ghost; nothing is what he should always play.
Lang is, of course, based on phony Tony Blair, who sold his soul to hitch his historical wagon to a vicious, stupidly vengeful U.S. president’s star in invading and occupying Iraq. Now every citizen of the United Kingdom must bear the shame and disgrace of Blair’s endless inability to shake his shadow loose from the substance that is itself a shadow of the Cheney-war profiteer Halliburton connection.
This is one political thriller that counts.
Polanski seamlessly incorporates a lot of Hitchcock, perhaps to underscore the Anglo-American connection (giving the only bad performance in the film, Eli Wallach eerily resembles someone whom the second Lady de Winter interviews in Rebecca, 1940), but the film is his: breathtakingly, beautifully his. The final shot, perhaps the most brilliant shot he ever devised, with pages of manuscript flying into frame on a dark city street, plays off Apu’s release of his long worked-on manuscript from a hill-top in Satyajit Ray’s fifty years-earlier The World of Apu. There, the manuscript is autobiographical; here, it isn’t Ghost’s life because, non-existent, Ghost doesn’t have a life. There, letting the thing go helps Apu reunite with his son; here, it merely punctuates for the literally minded that Ghost is dead, having never been alive in the first place.
Polanski has done it. Mature, calm, extraordinarily observant, this film never collapses into paranoia, while providing considerable evidence for our being suspicious, and not once shows a jot of cynicism. Polanski is in a good place; he leaves the cynicism to us.
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