There’s no question Roman Polanski knows how to make a thriller. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are classics – they serve as a reminder of the heights a top filmmaker can achieve at the top of his form. Yet for every superb entry, Polanski has made a number of duds. Polanski’s latest, The Ghost Writer, unfortunately belongs in the latter category. Despite fine performances and moody cinematography, it’s marred by hackneyed writing and laughable plot developments. Credulity-stretching twists are rarely an issue, yet with Polanski’s trademark pace, there’s plenty of time to be frustrated by the movie’s inanity.
Ewan McGregor plays the titular character, a doggedly intelligent writer who takes the piss-poor dribblings of the rich and famous and converts it into digestible prose. He protests when his editor assigns him to the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the former British Prime Minister who’s facing war crime charges. It doesn’t help that the previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances. Nonetheless, McGregor’s character moves from England to a remote beach house in Martha’s Vineyard, where he gets to know Lang and two important women in his life. His wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is a familiar cliché of a politician’s spouse, shrewd and bitter; Lang’s assistant Ameila (Kim Cattrall) is politely aggressive. The former PM is petulant and defensive, a nakedly obvious imitation of Tony Blair (Brosnan is on record confirming this). Inevitably the writer uncovers intriguing documents from his predecessor, which sparks a weary investigation into Lang’s early life. It’s no shocker the dark secrets may cost him his life.
The first act is strong, with ample energy and deft introductions. After a disappointing turn in The Men Who Stare at Goats, McGregor makes his character likably sardonic. In Lang’s austere home, there are far more questions than answers, and it’s engaging when the insouciant writer navigate through strong personalities. The wintry beach setting is foreboding and the cynical characters offer several amusing one-liners, yet all these elements cannot save the movie from its storytelling shortcomings. The conspiracy he uncovers is like a jigsaw puzzle for children. There are too few pieces, and any non-toddler can figure out how they fit in a heartbeat.
Even worse, the specifics of the writer’s investigation cannot stand against the most basic scrutiny. A major development hinges upon the GPS route set by Lang’s GPS the dead writer, and based on the importance of its destination, it’s difficult to believe Lang someone wouldn’t think to wipe its memory*. Yes, I realize such a gripe is minor, yet individual moments such as these are frustrating because they do not culminate in a satisfying conclusion. I suspect the inept simplicity of The Ghost Writer’s final revelation will annoy most audiences, or cause them to laugh, as I did ruefully.
Thanks to recent legal troubles, Polanski is as controversial as ever. An uncommonly famous director, he’s unafraid to use his work as a chance to defend himself. When Lang laments the limited number of countries to which he can travel, it’s easy to guess Polanski shares his frustration. Even without such scenes, the debate over Polanski’s personal life rages on. Some use the director’s past achievements to defend his crime, whereas others demand the harshest justice. It’s certain critics and defenders will never agree on how the director should spend the remainder of his life. Now, perhaps, they can join together in shared offense over the implied insult that such a sophomoric conspiracy could cultivate genuine thrills.
* Kudos to Tim for pointing out my error in the comments.