Review: The Ghost Writer


The giant gray cloud that hovers over the setting for almost the entirety of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is like the film’s suspense. The truly excellent mysteries in cinema are drawn out, almost at times torturous, hanging questions over our heads like — giant gray clouds. I wouldn’t say “The Ghost Writer” deserves comparison to Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown,” but it’s very much in that tradition, only substitute private investigator for biographer. It’s the story of the man who doesn’t know what he’s gotten into until he’s into it and the audience never saw it coming but strangely we knew it all along.

In a ten-film Best Picture category, a movie such as “The Ghost Writer” deserves to be bookmarked and reconsidered at year’s end. Elevating it above gimmicky thrillers such as this year’s “Shutter Island” — excellently crafted, but gimmicky — are the performances of McGregor, Brosnan, Cattrall and Olivia Williams that at times make the film feel more parts drama than thriller. Then there’s suspense that Polanski creates by use of sheer storytelling, not throwing together a single artsy scene that outwardly forces questions. It’s the difference between demanding audience interest and earning it.

McGregor stars as The Ghost, a writer hired to replace the recently deceased ghost writer of former British prime minister Adam Lang (a take on Tony Blair no doubt), a figure lately shrouded in human rights controversy. I, for one, went through the whole film thinking I missed The Ghost’s name, when it was never given. The effectiveness of that doesn’t catch up to you until after the film’s end. Much of the film is back-loaded, which is not ideal but it packs a heck of a punch. Anyway, The Ghost begins to uncover a mystery as he learns about Lang’s life and Lang tries to quell a PR nightmare.

Anchoring it all are great performances. Lang is easily Brosnan’s best dramatic role. I haven’t seen some of McGregor’s recent films, but he’s at his best since at least “Big Fish.” His inner monologue is nice and subtle, playing this “mystery protagonist” just right, never overdoing it in a role that with all the camera time would seem more important than it really is. It was also refreshing to see Cattrall in a role very far from Samantha that she plays with with class and Williams continues to put herself on the map, this time with a more enigmatic, intriguing role.

“The Ghost Writer” is the kind of film you could equate to a specific piece of music. It has a distinct tone that creeps over you. Maybe it’s just Alexandre Desplat’s hauntingly perfect score that makes the comparison easy to draw, but there’s an undeniable feel to Polanski’s film. He’s the kind of director that lets the story tell itself (easy to do when you have a hand in the writing), only allowing moments and images to linger enough to arouse your suspicions. It’s more great craft than excellent story, but it’s a memorable (and overdue) effort from Polanski.

4/5 Stars

The Ghost Writer
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Harris (novel, adaptation), Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams


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