Whatever your opinion about Roman Polanski as a human being is, we all can agree that he is one of the great directors in the film history. In the career as tumultuous as his life, he has made several great films including “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” while making very disappointing movies. And now, with his new movie “The Ghost Writer”, it is apparent he is still a immensely talented director who knows how to make a good thriller. With chilly, foreboding atmosphere and a subtle sense of humor, this calm but compelling movie proves that the most important thing for the thriller is how to pull us, not how to ambush us.
After a mundane opening with the dark undertone, we are immediately introduced to The Ghost(Ewan McGregor). His name is never mentioned(The movie seems to have a little small fun with it), and we never know much about this ghostwriter, but McGregor plays him as the plain ordinary man who is smart enough to know what he is going to deal with clearly.
Or does he? His new assignment is the memoir of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang(Pierce Brosnan), who is not so far from Tony Blair. Now residing in the beach house at Cape Cod and surrounded by his staffs and service guards, Lang recently gets in a serious trouble. After the disclosure by his former minister with exposed documents, he will be charged by the International Court for War crimes associated with War on Terror. He can be arrested if he comes back to Britain. His situation apparently mirrors that of Polanski, who will be arrested due to that infamous case in 1977 if he comes back to US.
These easy comparisons just stop around the beginning, and what we get is an slow, elegant waltz of a succinct thriller with the right note. Although the movie was shot in Germany for that reason, the looks of the movie is convincingly American while being effectively alien, creepy, and isolated. The fact that Lang’s original ghost writer died in a suspicious situation adds more uneasiness to hidden tension among people in the house. While Lang tries to solve his problem, Lang’s wife Ruth(Olivia Williams) is frankly bitter about the her husband’s relationship with his secretary Amelia(Kim Cattrall) as well as his plight.
The Ghost is stuck in midst of all these interactions while spending the time with the manuscript by his predecessor. It’s desperately in the need of doctoring, and he thinks he can improve it by digging into Lang’s heart within limited time. However, there is something not quite right about his past, and the manuscript may hide a very dangerous fact the Ghost probably does not wish to know. It is possible that Lang’s memoir will be the last book ever written by the Ghost, if he is not discreet.
Polanski carefully builds the story and its suspense from the opening sequence without hurrying the story, adapted by Polanski and Robert Harris from Harris’ novel “The Ghost”. With the background mainly comprised of the beach house with gray modern interior and desolate winter beach scenery, the suspense is deftly mounted step by step with the quiet but firm control.
The atmosphere is steady and consistent through the running time. There is an eerie feeling abound in the sequence when the Ghost goes to the place where his predecessor was found dead. Even a small scene like his encounter with an old man who lives nearby is deftly handled while significantly contributing to the creepiness on the screen. Like any other excellent thriller movie scores, Alexandre Desplat’s score with repetitive rhythm is simultaneously alluring and warning. His music is one of the reasons making the movie spellbinding, especially when we see the certain note handed over and over. With these series of deliberate sequences, Polanski precisely hits the nail for the payoff with a great effect in the end.
While many people have already mentions Hitchcock several times, one of South Korean critics I have known for years pointed out that the movie is more close to the Hollywood political thrillers in 1970s. Like these movies, we can feel the unseen brooding presence of the sinister force lurking around the corner in the movie, and the Ghost finds himself as helpless as the heros of these movies. Even though we get the main answer in the end as promised, there are lots of ambiguousness in the story and characters; many of them are still not so clear in the end.
The movie has talented actors who is able to make this cloudy situation intriguing enough to pull us into the story. Maybe he is not a good singer as shown in “Mamma Mia!”, but Brosnan gives one of his best performances as a charming politician who does not like to admit that he is not above an actor he used to be. Williams is wonderful as the wife who knows about her husband more than anyone and rightfully becomes pissed off about his latest behaviors(Her role was originally intended for Tilda Swinton, another good choice for this icy character). Cattrall also gives a good performance and I still wonder whether I really have to see “Sex and The City 2” for confirming its reported awfulness to others. Ever-reliable actors like Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, Timothy Hutton cannot be overlooked even if they are appeared briefly.
“The Ghost Writer” is my first time to watch Polaski’s film in the theater. When the end credit rolled, the man sitting near me said, “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in this year”. Sadly, we have to admit that not every moviegoer appreciates a good thriller nowadays and the movie may be too quiet and slow for the average taste of audience. But if you crave for an intelligent thriller or can be as patient as the movie asks you, it will be one of the most satisfying experiences in this year. And you will find that Polanski still retains his touch.