Movie Review: The Ghost Writer- Polanski’s Return to Form Mastering Technique and Mood for a Riveting Thriller

Director Roman Polanski has been in the news recently for more unfortunate and personal circumstances rather than being noticed for his abilities as a filmmaker. In fact, only one film in the past 20 years has actually gotten critical and award praise, which was his somewhat autobiographical World War II film The Pianist back in 2004. All of Polanski’s notoriety practically disappeared with him that is until his latest thriller entitled The Ghost Writer. Already this year there has been a number of thrillers such as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness but Polanski’s concentration on combining his use of technical subtlety and trust with actors gives The Ghost Writer a heads up from its competition. Acting as more of a Polanski version of a Hitchcock film rather than borrowing technique as homage, Polanski calls upon his earlier works such as the psychologically thrilling Repulsion and the complex and devious undercurrents in Chinatown to make a gripping yet politically biased thriller. Perhaps beginning rather slowly and taking a while for the characters to recognize what is completely obvious to the audience from the beginning, the second half of the film passes this by with a gorgeous display of mood, subtle technique that builds suspense with delicate camera work rather than editing, and an appropriate use of exaggerated character that allows the actors to freely create their own lasting personas. Sometimes thrillers treat the audience as though they are children but The Ghost Writer expects patience, a little knowledge of modern history, and an appreciation for tactfully built upon suspense.

The film opens with an intriguing if not grim shot of a corpse swaying in the waves on the shore of a beach outside of Martha’s Vineyard. This obvious signal to a mysterious death shouldn’t shock anybody that there is foul play afoot and the film doesn’t pretend for it to be that vague. We learn that this dead man was a Ghost Writer for British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s memoirs, played marvelously by a riveting and almost controlled chaotic Pierce Brosnan, who has a replacement Ghost Writer, a never named protagonist played by an equally resilient Ewan McGregor. Based on a book by Robert Harris, who also helped write the screenplay with Roman Polanski, the film allows for the murder mystery to take full swing once the introductions and political ties are established. One of the main story elements involving the Prime Minister being brought into an International Criminal Court because of rendition is far from being plausible, but luckily this is just the undercurrent of the story making Polanski’s political leanings more of a side note rather than a lecture. Putting the politics aside and focusing on the murder, which becomes more and more intriguing as the facts and theories come together, makes for an intriguing adult thriller that utilizes character, technique, and tone to accentuate the strengths of the story at hand.

The thriller is an extremely technical sort of genre that needs drastic pre-production organization and masterful post-production attention to deliver a successfully coherent suspense film. Polanski has certainly planned everything out here with his shots and lighting, because every scene’s mood is pitch perfect and the camera seems to revolve around the actors to build suspense rather than succumb to editing to artificially make it. The framing and shot sequences are clearly reminiscent of Polanski’s thriller successes such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby while the mood is definitely taking from his established strengths from Chinatown and his Polish film Knife in the Water. It’s been a long while for thrillers to not depend on action and shock value and instead use technique and subtle direction to guide the audience with a gullible but likeable protagonist. The Ghost Writer would fall more in line with 70s thrillers such as The Conversation or The Parallax View instead of all the modern noirs that are trying to be representative of the genre instead of actually being it. There are many weaknesses to name, such as the plausibility of the political issue or some overstated acting points, but the film as a whole is a better take on the noir and thriller genre that doesn’t depend on cheap action surprises, one dimensional villains, or even overstated music (the Bernard Herrman-esque score is intense yet understated).

Speaking of one dimensional characters The Ghost Writer is not a film that has them. Sure some of the actors fulfill certain roles, such as Kim Cattrell’s pompous yet sensual assistant, but most of them, especially Pierce Brosnan’s exceptional role, showcase some remarkable performances. Brosnan should be recognized for this complex role because our expectations never come to fruition in any case, making his beliefs sometimes seem questionable and at other times honorable. Polanski has always worked with actors well and here is evidence that he can still do it if allowed to continue his work though justice for one’s punishment is still preferable to this writer. Ewan McGregor is refreshing here and with exceptional presence defines his character without words which is all in his posture and eyes. The supporting cast is wonderfully put together with known names and surprises interspersed throughout including Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, Olivia Williams, and Eli Wallach, all of which bring their own sensibilities and strengths to each scene as the film progresses. Everyone embraces subtleties to their performances complimenting the filmmaker’s precision to successfully creating an understated thriller, which is lacking now that Hollywood feels the need to pander to audiences with no sense of delicate and patient filmmaking.

Personal feelings towards Roman Polanski should be put aside when trying to objectively critique his work since his personal failings have nothing to do with his strengths as a filmmaker. It has been too long since Polanski has been in this fine of form as a filmmaker especially in the genre that he used to be a master at making. But in The Ghost Writer the auteur returns to form with some minor narrative problems that are luckily only secondary to the main plot allowing for the suspense build up to the final conclusion evidence of a masterful storyteller. Everything from the acting, the camera work, and the music all come together for an engaging thriller that embraces subtlety rather than falling back on shock and awe or the dependency on the “twist,” allowing the protagonist’s paranoia to become the audiences. Putting the audience into the subjective experience of the actors is a difficult task but Polanski brought his strengths from his earlier career into a more than decent thriller that will be neglected by the majority of film going audiences.

Grade: B

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