Review: "The Ghost Writer" is high anxiety

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2010 - 5:04 PM

Roman Polanski brings a master's touch to a suspenseful tale of political intrigue.

Roman Polanski's new suspense film "The Ghost Writer" is so elegant, so deliciously scary, so masterfully controlled that you feel tingles of bliss even as your skin crawls.

Ewan McGregor stars as the unnamed Ghost and Pierce Brosnan as Adam Lang, the shifty former British prime minister whose autobiography he has signed on to salvage. The politician's first collaborator drowned accidentally before his draft was complete. Or maybe it was suicide. Or murder.

As McGregor's Ghost begins to probe into the events leading to his predecessor's demise, he realizes he's also in over his head. McGregor is great at looking anxious, and well he might. "The Ghost Writer" is a one-stop anthology of Polanski's edgy themes. In just over two hours we get moral corruption, violence, voyeurism, black comedy, escalating claustrophobia and dagger-sharp cultural satire.

Every aspect of the production, from set design to casting to the unhurried, deliberate editing, hints at sinister secrets. The palette is exquisitely gloomy. Alexandre Desplat's music recalls the nervous soundscapes of Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock scores. Even performers in one-minute roles give their characters a suspicious aura. The publishing tycoon who hires the Ghost is excellently played by Jim Belushi, an actor who projects the self-confidence of a rhinoceros, and also the intellect. In a world where this man runs a media empire, nothing good can happen.

Most of the action takes place on wintry, rain-swept Martha's Vineyard inside the publisher's beach house, which resembles a luxurious modern dungeon. The Ghost's assignment is too good to be true: a quarter-million dollars for a one-month rewrite of Lang's manuscript. The book promises to be a bestseller, a boost to the controversial politician's reputation, and a step up for the hired writer, whose last effort was a popular magician's memoir called "I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered."

But trouble begins for the ghostwriter as soon as he leaves the publisher's office. Muggers clobber him, stealing a document they mistake for Lang's book. Outside the oceanfront compound angry protesters wave placards accusing the P.M. of war crimes; inside the atmosphere is tense. Lang's arch, intelligent wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) has spent years concealing damaging facts about her husband. Is she angry about his ill-disguised affair with his aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall) or something more? Everyone appears to know more than they let on.

The film is talky but the talk is very good, as layer upon layer of intrigue, lies and seduction -- sexual and intellectual -- build up. Polanski co-wrote the script with novelist Robert Harris, and it is a model of economical construction. The plotting is airtight, the mystery unfolds without cheap tricks or gimmicks. There is no tacked-on exposition, no convenient coincidences, and the back story is revealed by minute degrees. The Ghost is smart, but no genius, and what people tell him usually is a self-serving story that bears only a passing resemblance to the facts.

As Lang, Brosnan does the best acting of his career. The details of posture and expression are flawless. When he's introduced to the Ghost he looks directly into the camera, at the audience. "Hello," he says, tilting his head back and looking dismissively down his nose. "Who are you?" When they begin their interviews, he faces the Ghost slouching on a sofa, arms back and legs widespread like a seductive lounge lizard. Though he'd clearly rather eat glass than be interrogated by this pipsqueak, he slips into manipulative mode out of sheer habit.

When he's hit by an indictment from the International Criminal Court for authorizing the kidnap and torture of terror suspects, his sputtering rage is fearful to behold. If he returns to England, he'll be arrested, so he's trapped in America under virtual house arrest. (There's a blackly comic moment when his advisers go through the short list of other nations that don't recognize the court: "Iran, North Korea, parts of Africa.") Brosnan digs deep into the man, creating a physical language that reveals, as much as the dialogue, how desperate his character is to be loved and respected.

As you get to know the man, your eye may fall on one of the blown-up bestseller covers that decorate the publisher's villa. "Love: Worth Killing For?" it asks. Be careful about leaping to conclusions, though. The man who gave us "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" sees the universe as a place where easy answers don't apply and justice is rarely sure.

The finale is a payoff to an almost subliminal sight gag Polanski has been working since early in the film. It's explosively funny yet blacker than printer's ink. Polanski's sardonic vision always leads us to the tunnel at the end of the light.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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Keep up with Colin Covert's posts at startribune.com/artcetera.

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  • Ewan McGregor in "The Ghost Writer"

  • THE GHOST WRITER

    ★★★★ out of four stars

    Rating: PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, violence and a drug reference.

    Theater: Uptown.

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