A Review of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer–based not on the same-titled Philip Roth novel but rather on the Robert Harris political thriller, The Ghost–is a curious film about displacement and secrecy. Both are words, concepts not far removed from the velvet-tipped gloves of Mr. Polanski himself, who has had to both displace (to anywhere but the U.S.–although he is currently under house arrest in Switzerland) and keep disgustingly mum about his much publicized rape of a young girl some thirty-odd years ago. All of this quite possibly feeds into a lingering resentment, or ressentiment, described in the film’s haunting atmosphere–the cold, immaculate interiors, the thrashing rain which beats over the Eastern seaboard with relentless anguish. This is a United States shown at its grimiest, at its most unforgiving; all of the principal characters (with the exception of McGregor) are (British) exiles in one way or another, shacking up on the American shore because of necessity and refuge. Here the murky waters are a constant reminder of all that remains soiled and undone.
It is no surprise the film opens in those waters; contamination is set from an immediate shot of a lifeless body turning in the early morning tide. The victim is a ghost writer–an author who writes and edits, without popular recognition, another’s story–of ex-Prime Minister, Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan). But a dead body is the least of Lang’s current worries: he is desperately caught up in an investigation by an international court for war crimes (rendition, torture–the usual post-9/11 flair) committed during his term. Naturally, a warm memoir would be a saving tonic for this swarming madness.
Alas, another ‘ghost’ is sought after to complete this project. In comes McGregor, the unnamed apparition (referred to in the novel as ‘the Ghost’), whose intelligence and quick-writing are hired for the job. However, more is left behind from the previous ghost writer than an unfinished manuscript and a dead body. Rather, there are a series of troublesome clues and mysteries, like Lang’s curious rise to prominence in politics and, of course, his peculiar sympathies towards the United States and the war on terror (especially, given the fact that he is of the Labour Party). Also waiting behind closed doors and mouths, is his beautiful wife, Ruth, whose advice and strong support for her husband is of curious origin and persuasion. Tom Wilkinson appears late in in an already longish film, and the mere intrusion of such a prominent character (and actor) perhaps compels too much towards obvious conspiracy than is necessary.
The Ghost Writer is part of a specific anti-Americanism that is popular in mainstream cinema as of late (one waits patiently while Hollywood digests life after Bush the Second). However, this particular British brand is more decidedly progressive in its approach, even if it condemns policy more along the lines of collusion and deceit than political inadequacy. Much of this discontent surely arises from the film’s monochrome color scheme and unsympathetic characters but also from its comic fatalism–the ending shot is a darkly humorous payoff even for those who couldn’t stand the rest of it.
Nonetheless, images of waterboarding and explicit torturing, of international outrage and political fervor, proliferate in The Ghost Writer. If this is an indictment on Tony Blair, it’s a very interesting one. Is it vindictive? Sympathetic? Something else? It’s hard to tell. The reason is both the depths of betrayal and intrigue that lay behind the movie’s shifty plot. Adam Lang/Tony Blair is presented as a beaten wreck, yes, but also as fiercely committed (one could even say seduced) by an irreducible belief in the veracity of his actions. As Lang defiantly leans towards a skeptical McGregor at one point, he argues, “I did what I had to!” It’s an uncompromising world, and an even more uncompromising political landscape. Is Polanski Blair, trapped in hopeless exile for crimes he didn’t ‘really’ commit? Maybe. Maybe not. What we do know is that there is no proper sanctuary for our most terrible decisions, that the bleak sand and surly waters only keep us indoors, where we are only left to confront all the terrible things left behind.