For Roman Polanski, the journey of The Ghost Writer ended in prison. After being arrested by Swiss authorities in September 2009, the filmmaker faced extradition to the U.S. on a 33-year-old conviction of unlawful sex with a minor. Not a person who gives up easily, Polanski spent his time in jail both fighting the extradition and wrapping up The Ghost Writer through correspondence with his editor. The results are fascinating, with an intriguing story populated by characters that echo real-life personalities.
Appropriately enough, we are never formally introduced to the leading character who earns a living by polishing scripts for celebrity memoirs. His job is to make those books readable. The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), as he shall be known here, is one day offered the job of turning former British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) words into prose, a project begun by a former aide who died in an accident. The Ghost reluctantly agrees to do it and flies to the U.S. where he’s driven to Lang’s magnificent house on a desolate island off the Eastern seaboard.
The Ghost starts interviewing Lang, but the memoir project looks doomed when a former Foreign Minister accuses Lang of having authorized illegal seizures of suspected terrorists on behalf of the CIA, which constitutes a war crime. The International Criminal Court decides to look into it and suddenly Lang finds his house surrounded by aggressive peace protesters. As the former Prime Minister goes to Washington to look for support, the Ghost delves deeper into what really happened to that former aide…
Raising questions about the U.S. and Britain
There is no great mystery to which real-life person writer Robert Harris was targeting in his novel, and Polanski has made it even easier to connect the dots. Adam Lang is Tony Blair, that former Foreign Minister looks a little bit like Robin Cook and there’s even an image of Lang shaking hands with the U.S. Secretary of State who looks very much like Condoleezza Rice.
As political satire the film raises questions about the nature of that special relationship between Britain and the U.S. and Harris employs a few extreme but clever ideas to drive home his points; in the end the story is not too farfetched. But Polanski himself is also mirrored in Lang’s character, a famous person whose behavior has left victims in his wake and who is now unable to travel wherever he’d like. The film is reminiscent of the director’s earlier The Ninth Gate (1999), another story where the protagonist goes looking for the devil and comes too close to finding him, and it offers few original touches… but Polanski nevertheless builds tension in a way that he hasn’t done for many years in a thriller. One of the things that also make The Ghost Writer stand out is its sense of humor; the dialogue is sharp and funny. Beautiful but chilling locations play a key role, along with Alexandre Desplat’s exciting score.
McGregor is a perfect, cynical everyday hero, Brosnan does very well as the resentful world leader and Olivia Williams sinks her teeth into a complex role as Lang’s intelligent, bitter wife. I also got a kick out of watching James Belushi who’s barely recognizable.
I wonder what Tony Blair makes of this film. And what about Polanski? The film has now been released to great acclaim, but the director remains in house arrest, his case still being passionately discussed among supporters and detractors. Perhaps Blair and Polanski should get together and reminisce over old crimes.
The Ghost Writer 2010-France-Germany-Britain. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde. Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Robert Harris. Novel: Robert Harris (“The Ghost”). Music: Alexandre Desplat. Production Design: Albrecht Konrad. Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton… Eli Wallach, James Belushi.
Trivia: Hugh Grant was allegedly considered for a role.
Berlin: Best Director. European Film Awards: Best Film, Director, Actor (McGregor), Screenwriter, Composer, Production Designer.
Last word: “There were some scenes that felt relevant to [Polanski’s] life, as when the prime minister can’t be extradited to Britain from the United States for war crimes, because the United States doesn’t recognize the International Criminal Court. There was some discussion during that scene, about the countries which Roman can and can’t go to. Roman isn’t able to travel to Great Britain or the United States, obviously. So there were some moments there, that felt relevant to his life, and we all felt on the set, that it seemed quite poignant to Roman’s life. But it wasn’t discussed, and nobody talked about it at the time.” (McGregor, Digital Journal)