There is a sequence in the Hitchcock classic Foreign Correspondent when Joel McCrea and his comrades, in a car pursuing another car bearing a man who just carried out a very public assassination in the city they've left behind, round a curve and see ... an empty road and miles of windmills (it's Holland). This is one of the cinema's sublimely creepy moments. How did that car disappear in an infinity of nothingness? Where's the assassin? And why are the vanes of one windmill turning in the opposite direction from the others?
Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer sustains something like that creepiness for most of its running time. Not so much because of its mystery-suspense plot, reportedly faithful to the Robert Harris novel (Harris and Polanski share screenplay credit). Nor because, the presence of Pierce Brosnan notwithstanding, it strews action set-pieces like a James Bond movie—it doesn't, though a drive through drizzly New England woods is more riveting than most movie car chases. No, The Ghost Writer is tense, unsettling and deeply thrilling because of the way a master filmmaker looks at the world.
The title character—whom the credits name only as "Ghost"—is a successful British scribe (Ewan McGregor) tapped to turn the memoirs of former prime minister Adam Lang (Brosnan) into a salable read. The catch is that he has four weeks to complete the task, while trying to ignore the fact that his predecessor, Lang's longtime aide, has died under mysterious circumstances. And just to up the pressure, the Ghost's arrival on the job coincides with the ex-PM's being slammed with scandal: the accusation of crimes against humanity for torture he may have authorized as part of his rather too cozy support for a Persian Gulf war. At least one man died of it, and the dying's far from done.
The greater part of the movie takes place at or near Lang's island retreat in America, where the once-popular PM is effectively exiled. The place resembles nothing so much as a Nazi pillbox at Normandy decorated with metallic sculpture and affectless primary-color art. The air of siege and crisp organization is reinforced by the two principal female characters the Ghost encounters there: the blond Amelia (Kim Cattrall), Lang's personal assistant and probable mistress, and the dark Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams), the wife for whom hostility has become an approximation of social grace. Each of them clearly knows or suspects a lot—about what, the Ghost can only guess, even as he's drawn into their variously mutual and divergent scenarios.
Most of all, though, there's the room where the Ghost will do his work. Half of one wall appears to be missing. We know, of course, that it's a glass wall, floor to ceiling, affording a not-especially-scenic view of sand dunes and gray sea. Yet somehow we never shake the conviction that, no, half the wall is unaccountably missing and there's no glass there. Inside is seamlessly joined to outside. Any pretense to a reliable continuity of structure, the order of things, is just illusory, to be whisked away at any second.
And speaking of whisking, a moment that might have come from one of Polanski's early, experimental short films (Two Men and a Wardrobe, The Fat and the Lean): The Ghost sits in the room working. Outside, an Asian servant meticulously sweeps sand off a wood patio even though that patio is surrounded by and merges with sandy dunes. Lang, also outside, angrily strides into frame talking on a cell phone, then hurls the phone down, shattering it, and storms off. After a beat, a hitherto-unseen aide steps into view, quietly collects the pieces of phone, then removes them and himself. The servant continues sweeping; the sand continues as well.
We needn't recite the plot twists, niggling clues and subtly managed tradeoffs of sympathy and suspicion among the dramatis personae. The mystery's a good one, steeped in years of maneuvering and betrayal during which, almost absentmindedly, the parties to the mystery must have fallen into the conviction that this, after all, was just a slight variation on normal life. The Ghost's eventual putting-it-all-together is one of those Google moments that have become commonplace in our movies and TV shows (how does mystery survive if it's all out there on the Web?). But that's a minor disappointment when we get two ferry scenes a-crawl with suspense, a great sinister/folksy cameo by Eli Wallach as a beach-dweller, and a parlor chat with retired academic Tom Wilkinson in which geniality and menace intermingle, a poisoned marmalade.
With the exception of his Oscar-winning triumph The Pianist in 2002, Polanski's work as a director in the past several decades has been sporadic and uneven. The Ghost Writer marks a return to form—not Chinatown class (what would be?), but a much more satisfying thriller than Frantic or The Ninth Gate. Its emphasis on a central setting is cinematic and atmospheric, rather than the theatrical pressure-cooker rationale of Death and the Maiden; indeed, the new film harkens back to that other island movie, Cul-de-sac (in contention with Chinatown as the director's masterpiece). In his 76th year, Polanski makes every frame compulsively watchable and utterly distinctive. May he give us many more.
Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 17, 2010
Copyright © 2010 by Richard T. Jameson