“The Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski’s latest film, tells the story of a British writer (Ewan McGregor) who gets the chance to write the memoirs of the former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, the previous ghost writer, died under mysterious circumstances. This, however, does not stop him from undertaking the task, especially since the award for doing so is 250,000 dollars. During the ghostwriter’s stay with Lang, the International Criminal Court accuses the latter of war crimes. From this point in the story, the protagonist starts to investigate his predecessor’s death, which, predictably, brings him a lot of problems.
One could say that “The Ghost Writer” is a “typical” Polanski movie. There’s the character who loses control of the circumstances he’s in, but at the same time consciously continues his detective mission. We saw this in “Chinatown” when Jack Nicholson tries to solve a murder and along the way discovers a huge scandal involving land and water rights in Los Angeles. We also saw this when Johnny Depp in “The Ninth Gate” plays a rare-book dealer keen on tracking down a copy of the Devil’s book. The mystery elements and complex plots of these movies tap into the neo-noir style of Polanski’s films.
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Both “Chinatown” and “The Ninth Gate” rely on the strength of the central actor. “The Ghost Writer” with Ewan McGregor as the Ghost does not fall behind, rising to one of the best performances of his career. His character is cheeky and bold, yet frustrated enough for the audience to believe that he is realistic. We sympathize with him while he keeps asking himself, “What have I gotten myself into?” The ease with which the audience can relate to the Ghost is a conscious decision on the part of the director. We, as the audience, know only as much as the Ghost. By keeping the audience in the same position as the main character, we become invested in what will happen to him. All scenes, except for one, take place in the presence of Ewan McGregor’s character. Polanski uses live TV footage to inform the Ghost about the developments in Adam Lang’s case.
Ewan McGregor is supported, I must admit, by a surprisingly good performance by Pierce Brosnan. Even Kim Cattrall’s haughty voice does the job in the role of Lang’s assistant. Olivia Williams is very convincing as the burdened, depressed and mysterious wife of Lang, overwhelmed by the downfall of her husband. And like Emmanuel Seigner in “The Ninth Gate” and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown,” she also has her secrets.
Before “The Ghost Writer” even came out, there was no question it would receive a lot of critical attention. Because of his alleged sex crimes in the 1970s, Roman Polanski had to edit the movie while under house arrest in Switzerland. But the most controversial aspect of the movie is its resemblance to recent history, especially that involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Ewan McGregor and Robert Harris, the screenwriter, admit that the story was strongly inspired by Tony Blair’s years in office. Of course, the accusation by the International Criminal Court remains pure fiction, but Lang’s support of the U.S. invasion in Iraq is more than a coincidence.
But all of this is not the main reason to see this movie. Rarely do we see Polanski on the screen and almost never in such good shape. “The Ghost Writer” is the essence of what the Polish director does best for the neo-noir genre and world cinema.