Film: Roman Polanski: The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Pianist (2002) uniquely aside, Roman Polanski generally vacillates between twisted creepiness (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) and pulpy silliness (Death and the Maiden, 1994) (or pulpy creepiness (Chinatown, 1974) and twisted silliness (The Tenant, 1976).  He’s got a strikingly clear visual sense, most of the time – his best work cuts with the organic intricacy of a brilliant previsualist – and an ability to strike a match against his performers without burning off their naturalism.  He’s a ludicrous actor himself, but like many actors – Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Woody Allen – he knows how to direct others in ways that complement his own filmmaking energy; Jack Nicholson and Adrien Brody are as shockingly focused in Polanski’s films as is Richard Harris in Unforgiven (1992), or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

There’s a fire inside him as well, speaking of vacillation, and Polanski’s films tend to be either full of thought or full of emotion, but rarely in equal measure.  And so he’s made The Ghost Writer, a well-written film in a structural sense, but a chaotic emotional jumble of painfully little consequence.  All the ideas are there, from the title on down: nobody is who they appear to be, and it’s usually less for intentionally deceptive reasons than from a sort of incidental lack of proclamation (there are exceptions).  I like this conceit.  It’s perfect for a filmmaker.  The ghost writer does a lot of work for a lot of money, polishing other people’s thoughts for which they – the other people – are ultimately responsible.  The ghost writer gets none of the credit, but also none of the fallout.  He drops in and out with complete anonymity.

Which, indeed, is how Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer operates in the modern island fortress of Pierce Brosnan’s former British prime minister.  Barely acknowledged upon his arrival, McGregor stands in the midst of Brosnan’s family and associates as a scandal erupts ferociously around them (but in the distance, overseas), neither a threat nor particularly useful, except as an occasional perfunctory PR wordsmith.  The film happens by and large in the immediate, in the constant discovery of new accusations and complications, both in the prime minister’s public and private life.  The circumstances are ripe for an exploration of the ghost writer’s soul, as one man privy to another man’s demons.  But Polanski doesn’t plumb for it, content to fill the screen with odd casting choices (Timothy Hutton and James Belushi in stock roles, Kim Cattrall weirdly cast as a British secretary) and a pervasive foul-weather gloom that smacks of vaudevillian excess rather than intelligent artistry.  Does it have to be?  Of course not.  Is it a missed opportunity for a capable director?  Definitely.

Polanski can direct above a potential haphazard script (Chinatown risks cornball hamhandedness at every turn), and I would say he’s probably giving The Ghost Writer his best shot, but he doesn’t seem to have inspired McGregor or Brosnan with much creative investment, and some of his other actors – Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson in particular – seem cast for lazily obvious reasons.  Pawel Edelman shot The Pianist with a graceful restraint he’s got no reason to emulate here; the film is dim and moody, but with some clever shots aside (like the last one, beautifully framed and choreographed), simply shows competent actors doing the mundane tasks Polanski and Robert Harris’ script asks them to do.  I’m of the (marginalized, I think) opinion that the mundane has a rightful, complex place in cinema, since we’re already made up of the mundane, the trivial, and the practically necessary, as functionaries in the modern world.  Escapism has its place, but we cast real shadows and reflections that we shouldn’t be afraid of examining in a smart film – one that knows how to let these little details coalesce into something much less ordinary than its parts.  The trouble is that Polanski and Harris seem to have confused movie mundane with real mundane.  A writer discovering secret letters and incriminating photographs in a plot that features the CIA and the Middle East is mundane in a Hollywood way; it’s so boring and contrived that it better be in service of not only some deeper thinking, but at this point in film history some self-conscious eye-winking.  It’s neither here.

To be fair, there is one other level at which Polanski might have intended The Ghost Writer to play, and that’s as weirdly clairvoyant autobiography.  It still wouldn’t quite work as a motion picture, but would at least take on a certain twisted, silly creepiness – the work of a director ostracized from society by his own crime, hidden away overseas and cranking out literal autobiographies couched in sweeping global scale.  That’s if he’s the prime minister.  If he’s the ghost writer, well hell, The Ghost Writer might as well be an allegory about its own making.  That both of these characters meet a similar end is just plain surreal in light of Polanski’s recent arrest – unless it’s possible to read this as Polanski’s own self-indictment.  A monumental stretch, sure, but I’m looking for more beneath this film.  It’s the only emotional current I can find.

One Response to “Film: Roman Polanski: The Ghost Writer (2010)”

  1. Really Interesting review. Enjoyed reading.

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