Ewan McGregor trying to fade into the shadows in Polanski's The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer takes Robert Harris' novel The Ghost and for some reason along the way gives it the title of a Philip Roth novel.
That said, the result is near-flawless, a fabulously sleek thriller that conveys menace through the very smoothness of its visual texture, the 21-jewel precision of its wit and tone, the absolute confidence of its direction, the effortless way it slides with a sharp click into place among the filmmaker's works.
Arguably the film's finest achievement, though, is in evoking through elements and details every possible implication as to what it means to be a ghost--not so much a supernatural being as an echo, an image, a memory from our past come back to haunt us.
Ewan McGregor is the eponymous writer named--but he is never explicitly called by name, something you may not immediately realize (if at all) if you aren't listening attentively. The writer is hired as a ghost writer (a professional hired to pen a speech or autobiography for some celebrity, who receives sole credit) for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, channeling the worst characteristics of both Tony Blair and George W. Bush), replacing the previous writer who was found on a beach, drowned. In effect, the writer is asked to act as ghost for a former politician, replacing--'ghosting' if you like--someone who acts as a metaphorical and literal phantom throughout the film.
The writer quickly settles in to his work (he has a month to whip six hundred pages of deadwood prose into sensational life) but matters don't stay settled for long. The writer keeps unearthing clues to and reminders of his predecessor--a mysterious envelope, a BMW sports utility vehicle, a pair of nondescript slippers. More, hints keep popping up that the previous ghost was quietly investigating Lang, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in Hague for war crimes (in this case for enabling the deportation and torture of four terrorist suspects).
The faces of the four suspects pop up constantly throughout the film, haunting Lang as thoroughly and constantly as Hamlet's father haunted him. When the writer finally decides (with much queasiness) to sit in the BMW and drive it, the car's GPS system tonelessly insists that the writer follows the dead man's pre-programmed road directions--insists on following the dead man's final steps. Lang's secretary Amelia (a deliciously inscrutable Kim Catrall) is so obviously Lang's mistress, a (sexually speaking) double for Lang's wife Ruth (an equally delicious Olivia Williams, only recently seen doing excellent work in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse); Ruth in turn (as Polanski outlines in a brief but devastating shot) has so obviously slid from Lang's affections that she has literally become a ghost--an impotent, immaterial wraith--in the household.
Polanski set the film on a New England island so beautifully desolate (actually the film was shot in Germany) one might think it was populated with despairing spirits; the house itself is a soulless, colorless mausoleum breathtaking in its ultra-modernist style, its leather-and-chrome-steel furniture. The lighting is a kind of translucent gray totally devoid of sunlight, yet able to render people and objects with an eye-widening hyperclarity, not to mention pallor. At night, when the rain-slicked asphalt reflects endless arrays of sodium street lamps and blinking neon signs, the film's ethereal imagery comes alive, vibrating with menace.
Does the film tell the story of a man investigating a dead man's last moments? Echoes of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949). Does it at one point have the hero standing in the middle of a huge open space, feeling alone and vulnerable? Possible homage to Hitchcock's 1959 thriller North by Northwest (read a critic castigating Polanski for failing to create his customary atmosphere of claustrophobia (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby)--said critic apparently failing to realize that agoraphobia is equally if not more terrifying). Does Polanski's hero climb yet another wire fence, risk life and limb on yet another hazardous jump to save his life? Allusions to similar sequences in Polanski's Frantic (1998) and The Pianist (2002). Is this vast, complex plot woven by some powerful, mysterious figure leading the flawed but essentially good hero astray? Echoes of Polanski's Chinatown (1974).
I'm sure Polanski is far from unaware of how details from the novel's story somehow parallel details from his own. Adam Lang thanks to the court has been transformed into an international refugee, unable to travel anywhere except the United States and a short list of hilariously uninviting territories. He lives the life of a celebrated exile, haunted by a crime he may or may not have done (to his credit Polanski makes it painfully obvious that Lang is guilty). The filmmaker haunts his film as thoroughly as any of the dozen aforementioned specters, not only narratively but artistically, in the way he suffuses every frame with his unique brand of self-escalating paranoia.
Then there is the popular nickname for a secret agent--a "spook." Then there is the United Kingdom and the United States' shared past as colonizer and colony, parent and at times wayward son, and Britain's decline from world power to humble follower--a shadow of its mighty progeny.
More, if ghosts are memories of our past and if the past is never quiet, never quite dead, one might say that the past acts as a ghost of the present--basically the reality of the now made immaterial (but not totally ineffectual) by time's passage.
Polanski's picture tells us that ghosts never rest, that the past will never completely die down (partly because we won't let it, partly because, as the film makes repeatedly clear, the universe tends towards the perverse), but whether or not they will be able to successfully deliver their message to us the living, whether or not we have the wit and intelligence to heed their warning, we may never fully know--onscreen, it's a close race between obfuscation and revelation. Brilliant film, possibly the best of the year--yes it's only March, but at this point Polanski's latest has set the bar impressively high.