Roman Polanski’s name has recently been scattered across the press for reasons entirely unrelated to filmmaking. His new thriller The Ghost Writer – which stars Ewan McGregor as the eponymous literary hack who embarks upon his first foray into political novelizing and realizes a bunch of sleep deprived nights later that it wasn’t such a great idea – tests that old dictum, the one about how all publicity is allegedly good publicity.
Such marketing logic may not apply to matters concerning statutory rape but, you know, I’m happy to stand corrected. A gentlemen behind the counter at my local cinema told me the film had drawn surprisingly large crowds despite one man hollering “I’m not seeing any movie from that bastard Polanski!”
Guiding this consistently paced Hitchcockian thriller is the same coldly precise directorial hand that has delivered a collection of very fine films light on heart and heavy on slow burning intrigue (Repulsion, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby). While far from top shelf Polanksi, The Ghost Writer is spotted with occasional flourishes that remind audiences just how elegant and deft the 76-year-old auteur’s touch can be.
An unnamed ghost writer (who shall henceforth be known as GW) played by McGregor is allocated a month to turn the drab memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) into a riveting page turner.
The previous ghost writer committed suicide and, of course, it transpired under suspicious “what if?” circumstances. GW kicks off his interviews with Lang and starts sniffing out his past during a time in which Lang is fighting war crimes accusations. One thing leads to another and before you know it, GW is being followed by goons in black cars and participating in surreptitious middle of the night meetings with strangers.
It’s by the numbers clock and dagger stuff, delivered with Polanski style classiness so you don’t really notice that you’ve seen it all before. There are a number of plot elements Hitchcock would have lumped into the basket of the “refrigerator thriller” — films that make sense at the time but begin to crumble after viewing, like a late night munchies run that’s satisfying until you ask “what did I eat?”
Ewan McGregor’s smooth everyman performance helps keep the experience palatable even when tension wanes. The narrative fixates on his character’s perspective, staunchly unraveling the turns and herrings only as he encounters them.
Polankski masterfully integrates a top shelf creepy score from veteran composer Alexandre Desplat, which beautifully suits the film’s delicately disquieting ambiance. The story arc may be forgettable but some of the small touches are not. There is, for example, a simple but memorable shot capturing in extreme close-up a note passed between characters. Such a shot could easily have looked unnecessarily showy, but with Polanski behind the lens it looks slick and gracious, a reminder that the old showman isn’t ready to hang up his shingle.
The Ghost Writer’s Australian theatrical release date: August 12, 2010