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The Ghost Writer (2010) *1/2

February 26, 2010

Written by: Robert Harris and Roman Polanski

Produced by: Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde

Directed by: Roman Polanksi

Rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence and a drug reference

128 min.

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 2010 (limited)

It is difficult to arrive at your seat in a theater without having heard any buzz about a film, whether good or bad.  Unfortunately, with a one-week lag in release between limited and wide, I heard plenty about Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” prior to my screening.  I heard that this film is one of Polanski’s finer works, that he proves himself to be a master of the thriller, and that this is a tight, unpredictable thriller.  After hearing those kinds of reviews, going into the film without looking at it with an extra critical eye is challenging at best.  All the early buzz aside, and while attempting to watch the film with an open mind, did it hold up?

The film more or less begins with the camera following “The Ghost”, the nameless character played by Ewan McGregor, as he gets called into an urgent meeting with a publisher in London.  He learns that the acting ghost for ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has recently died from drowning.  A ghost is a writer who follows a subject to collect information to write about them, most of time in the form of a memoir (which is marketed as written by the subject).  The publishers want to continue with the project despite the setback, and they invite “The Ghost” onboard to bring it to its completion.  After coming to an agreement, the writer finds himself on a plane to the U.S. only hours later.

When “The Ghost” finally makes it to the Lang’s New England island estate, he is hit with the breaking news that Lang is being investigated for war crimes specifically related to torture.  What begins with pleasantries and on-the-surface discussion about Lang’s life quickly turns into an investigation into the deeper hidden goings on in his political career.  McGregor’s character is left without anyone to trust and a global political conspiracy to uncover.  The plot itself sounds undeniably Hitchcockian in nature, and while the mystery builds, Polanski succeeds to creating similar intrigue.  However, as the second half of the film has “The Ghost” making significant headway on uncovering the mystery, Polanksi fails in wrapping up what could be a solid and smart thriller.

My issues with the film come mainly with how “The Ghost” finds all the clues he needs for the rest of the film in one place.  Convenience is the theme for the second half of the film, as everything comes together way too easily for “The Ghost”.  It was at this point that I began to feel insulted that Polanski and Harris couldn’t have attempted to write a more imaginative and sophisticated way for the main character to go about uncovering this conspiracy.  The film played like a fantastic miniseries that got condensed into a two-hour feature, so everything had to be accelerated.

Another thing that bothers me about films in general is when there is an element that pulls me out of the story, at which point I step out of the film back into the real world and realize, “oh that’s right, this is just a movie.”  My colleague David refers to this as “the ripcord effect”, where movie watchers are shoved out of a film’s world due to a small, but nagging quirk that is difficult to ignore.  In this film, there are many instances when characters “drop the f-bomb”, if you will.  The only problem is, the filmmakers went back and over-dubbed lesser foul language in its place to gain a PG-13 rating.  The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the fine folks responsible for rating all American films allows a single use of “the harsher sexually-derived word” and anything in excess of that garners an “R” rating.  Knowing this, upon the first instance of this horrific over-dubbing, I actually searched my jacket for my ticket stub to verify that “The Ghost Writer” was rated PG-13, and it indeed is.  I am in no way an advocate for excessive harsh language, but if a film decides to backtrack on language after shooting wraps, cut away from the mouth or something!

There are some redeeming qualities about this film after all.  Ewan McGregor’s performance as “The Ghost” is actually one of his best in recent memory.  Never once did I second-guess the believability of his actions or motivations.  My first instinct as “The Ghost” would have been to simply leave and fly home, but I understand that his character was offered a cold $250,000 for the completion of this project.  I was with him the whole way for this film, but it was the writing that fell short for me.

Without a doubt, Roman Polanski knows how to make a thriller.  He knows how to build intrigue and suspense, and succeeds in the making of “The Ghost Writer”.  I did mention earlier that I had problems with the second half of the film, but in building the mystery for the first half, Polanski built a dark and suffocating environment that ranks with the likes of Hitchcock.  Set only in the Lang estate or on the immediately surrounding island, Polanski gives the main character no choice but to confront his problems, while simply running away is not an option.

Bottom line, Polanski knows his way around a camera and the storytelling methods to build suspense and intrigue, but fails to wrap the story up in a way that rewards the audience.  “The Ghost” is simply given all the tools he needs to succeed, so can’t possibly screw it up.  As the viewer, we are given the impression that “The Ghost” is in a “trust no one” situation, but the only characters he chooses to trust are ones that betray him.  On the whole, “The Ghost Writer” is all to cliché to be good, and the ending was something I’ve seen maybe a hundred times.

If you are a Polanski or Hitchcock fan and enjoy not thinking too hard when you go to the movies, I can see this film maybe working out for you.  If you love suspense and great character development by master filmmakers, go see Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” instead.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2010 2:26 pm

    Wow, 1.5 stars. Bummer, I really like McGregor. I’ll probably wait to stream this on Netflix. Thanks!

    • March 5, 2010 6:48 am

      Otto — in retrospect (and especially after screening “Brooklyn’s Finest”, I would probably give this film two stars, because “The Ghost Writer” is definitely better than “Brooklyn’s”. I’m trying to stay away from revising star ratings and stuff, but oh well. I’m hoping ALICE picks up my spirits after a couple of bummers!

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