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The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski


The Ghost Writer 2010 | dir Roman Polanski | writ Polanski & Robert Harris (from the novel by Harris) | cine Pawel Edelman | edt Herve de Luze | music Alexandre Desplat |design Albrecht Konrad | SFX Roland Tropp & Lutz Zeidler | sound: too many to list | prod Polanski, Benmussa, Sardi

star Ewan McGregor (the Ghost Writer) Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang) Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang) Tom Wilkinson (Paul Emmett) Kim Catrall (Amelia Bly) Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart) Eli Wallach (old man) John Bethnall (Rick, lit agent) Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll) Jim Belushi (John Maddox) et. al.

§§ Sometimes political leaders end up exiled from their countries -- Juan Peron, Leon Troksky, Idi Amin, and Anastasio Somoza, for example. Loneliness, madness, assassination are possible fates. Somoza was assassinated near his exile home in Asuncion, Paraguay... but not before he completed and published his uncomfortable memoir.

Could this scenario happen to the leader of a G 8 country? Where he is forced to resign, go into exile on an island like Martha's Vineyard, say? Suppose, like Somoza, he writes his memoirs to make some money, screw his enemies, fabulize history, stay in the public eye, but needs a ghost writer to clean up the manuscript, give it the eloquence befitting a world leader. Suppose the ghost writer ends up drowned in the surf after he discovers something shocking during his background research, and that his hurried replacement -- the new Ghost -- soon finds himself travelling towards the same fate. Sound interesting? Roman Polanski thinks so, as this is the storyline of his controversial political thriller, The Ghost Writer (2010).

At the time of its publication in 2007 Robert Harris' source novel Ghost was widely hailed as a roman a clef, built on the silhouettes of Prime Minister Tony Blair, his wife Cheri and their Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook; renamed as The Ghost Writer, the screenplay carries these avatars to their ideological extremes. Add in some other ideas & characters taken from the Cambridge Five, and the London war protestor Brian Haw (with a dash of Cindy Sheehan), and Harris & Polanski have all the ghosts they need for a solid dramatis personae.

No one needs to recognize these "ghosts" for the movie to make sense, although, if he doesn't, a level of irony will be missed. Well, there's a lot of ironic opportunism in this script, including the fact that director Roman Polanski's own situation is not dissimilar to that of the exiled PM Adam Lang's, and maybe this is one reason why the project appealed to him... or, for that matter, if it led to his recent arrest and confinement in Switzerland. Who was behind the long, time-shifting arm of the Los Angeles Prosecutor's office? After all these years, we have to wonder about this sudden interest in Polanski's sins.

In the film, Adam Lang (Brosnan) is indicted by an International Criminal Court prosecutor to appear in the Hague on charges of war crimes (illegal renditions & torture in secret prisons); Polanski, as everyone knows, fled the US into exile in Europe after being charged with the corruption & rape of a minor in Los Angeles in 1977. His situation was such that he couldn't set foot in the UK for fear of being extradited back to the US, and had to work around the London & US scenes by using a travelling 2nd unit, and sound staging in Berlin. The Atlantic winter light of the major scenes on Martha's Vineyard are in fact Baltic locations, and are the reason for that special Bergman melancholy that makes The Ghost Writer such a beautiful visual experience. In fact Polanski had to finish the post-production work on The Ghost Writer while under house arrest at his alpine chalet in Switzerland.

The ironies keep coming, even at the time of writing: Aug 16, 2010, the Telegraph: "Blair to give profits from book to help injured troops." Was Tony Blair intimidated by an angry public and a fugitive filmmaker? As propaganda, the power of film should never be underestimated.

(follow up Telegraph article)

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer

"Lang Ordered Secret Kidnapping"

In the beginning, we see an abandoned BMW SUV on the ferry, then the body of the ghost writer Mike McAra floating in the winter surf of a long sandy beach. The situation is ominously atmospheric and left ambiguous as we cut to his soon-to-be replacement (Ewan McGregor) being set up for the job by his agent. They go to the London offices of the US publisher Rhinehart, see the CEO John Baxter (Jim Belushi), and McGregor gets the job despite the fact that he says, "I don't read political memoirs -- who does?" It seems his previous experience was in ghosting fantasy lit. The house editor doesn't want him on the job either, yet McGregor's cynicism seems to appeal to the publisher, who says, "The Ghost should be a Brit... to get that jolly old tone." He should know -- he's giving Lang a 10 million dollar advance. The new Ghost's slice is nice too -- $250,000 + expenses, but he has to get the job done within the month.

As he & his agent leave the office, the house lawyer hands the Ghost (who is never given a name in the film) a manuscript in a yellow plastic shopping bag, something for "another client" that maybe he could run his eye over. Why not? Seems to be all money for nothing, chicks for free. He's accompanied by the editor who muses about the former Ghost, McAra, says "there's something not right about this job." But this Ghost doesn't care... until he gets mugged on the street outside his flat, is relieved of the manuscript in the yellow bag by a thug who escapes on a motorcycle.

Why? Did the assailant think it was Lang's memoir?

So, is this gig worth it? But pressed by his agent, the Ghost heads for Heathrow anyway; as he's waiting in the lounge for his plane, he sees a newscast that says Lang is under investigation for possible war crimes by the ICC. Soon he's on the jet, soon he's on the island, and soon he's clearing security at Lang's remote gated estate on the dunes.

Even at this early stage, we might be asking ourselves, is Ewan McGregor the right actor for this part? He's a writer? Plebeian English, a bit like "the Gecko" (the wildly popular talking lizard in the TV ads for the US insurance giant Geico) so we might be thinking this guy doesn't know his ass from his elbow, an ellipsis from a full stop, never mind narrative in a political context. He's a writer? Well, perhaps we can eat "ghost writer" which is what we all do best anyway, that is, correcting someone else's mistakes rather than creating our own.

He's a rough dog in the company of breeds, something Polanski has explored effectively before in Bitter Moon, where the roles are reversed: a coarse, embittered American writer tells his story to another English type, the polite middle-class masochist with the public school accent. Yet there is an advantage to having the point-of-view coming through a misfit like McGregor's character -- naive, as we are, but with a certain feral cunning. A generation ago he would've been a working-class opportunist of the sort played by Albert Finney or Laurence Harvey.

a perfect mix of dream and dread

There's something about the action at the house on the dunes that's reminiscent of Polanski's 1995 film version of Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, and why not? Writer Robert Harris says he initially thought of Ghost as a play. An isolated house, an empty landscape, the horror of infinity. The themes are similar -- the politics of torture, betrayal, and the failure of a man to live up to a woman's expectations.

This time the setting is subtly spectacular, the rolling oceanic clouds closing down onto the dunes and sea like a painting of life after death. The exterior of the house is like a bunker, a gray box, a modernist simplicity... an antechamber to the unknown. The interior? Some would say cold and institutional, the sort of soft brutalism you can find on any modern campus or in an industrial park. It's all concrete and abstract expressionism, that familiar mix of gray walls, art furniture, open spaces... a waiting room rather than a living room, an exit point rather than a destination.

It's a perfect mix of dream and dread. Polanksi says he wanted the sort of house you can see in an architectural magazine, and so the sets were built to accommodate this idea. The effect of all the rectilinear stacking -- the paintings, the stairwell, the flat screen TVs, the big windows -- establishes a powerful spacial atmosphere wherein Lang's retainers can suddenly appear and disappear like phantoms in a castle. Some might feel it's all a bit too much, a confusing art aesthetic that owes more to Windows 98 than plain good taste... yet it has to be admitted that it succeeds magnificently on a psychological level. Boxes within boxes... even the hallowed manuscript is kept in a box.

Soon the Ghost is reading Lang's manuscript, privately sneering at some of its self-serving syntax (there is humour in this film) when he is surprised by the appearance of Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams). "Is it that bad?" she says as she lounges against the doorframe. Immediately realpolitik kicks in, always a good basis for a friendship, whatever hidden agendas may exist. Soon they are walking together on the beach, leaning into the wind, a secret service agent trailing behind. "You were my idea," says Ruth. The Ghost is flattered, surprised she would know of his work. She tells him about McAra, his predecessor. "I never thought he was right for the job," she says, ironically reprising the Rhinehart editor's feeling about the new Ghost. It seems McAra was actually Adam Lang's press secretary.

It's like being married to Napoleon

The dunes, the saw grass, and in the distance, the flashing lighthouse.

"It's like being married to Napoleon," says Ruth, candidly admitting her frustration at her husband's frequent absences and her growing isolation.

Despite the Big World political facade, this film is as much about the uneasy relationship between men and women in the age of feminism and cell-phone love. Politics is and always has been a feminine art, regardless of the stake. Male power is often an illusion, despite the homicide rates. The character of Ruth Lang fits the new paradigm perfectly, like an old whore in a new suit. She shouts, she weeps, she swears... she demands, she orders, she manipulates. A sharp-tongued harridan with an imperial manner and a bi-polar secret. Yet she's played with such a beautiful clarity and ambiguity by Olivia Williams, we don't know if she's a tragic soul or a predatory hack when all is said and done. Her husband has a mistress -- his svelte blonde assistant Amelia (Kim Catrall), so why shouldn't she seek consolation elsewhere, even if it's a redbrick Ghost Writer? But then, what are her true motives? Control? The content and pitch of the Lang memoir is all about control, and all the more so as the crisis of the war crimes indictment takes hold.

Perhaps the biggest hostage of this situation is the manuscript itself, and the political indiscretions it might contain. Everyone wants it, would even kill for it, apparently. Thus, such is the need for absolute security, even the Ghost cannot take it back to his hotel for further editing off-hours.

The possibility of a metaphysical dimension is suggested by the title and by the core nature of the story, yet, strangely, it doesn't exist. While McAra's death propels the plot, there is no supernatural action as in Vertigo, say. At no point is McGregor's character driven to madness or even close, or is Brosnan's given to moments of deep delusion. Olivia Williams' character has the possibility of a Lady MacBeth, but naturalism prevails. The romance between her and the Ghost is no romance at all, merely a power play. The Ghost, if anything, is attracted to Amelia -- Lang's assistant & mistress -- and when he submits to Ruth, it's just part of the job. Used and being used is the game. Politics is the main concern, and quite possibly this loveless pursuit weakens the action. Intrigue is fine, but intrigue without any sympathetic characters is an internal memo.

Adam Lang has the image of the classic contemporary leader: he jogs, he jets, he justifies... in a way he's Clinton-Lite, part of a power couple that will stop at nothing to get power and hold onto power even when the elected term is done and gone. This is why he's in the US, doing the lecture circuit, hanging out with his war allies, using a Hatherton ("Halliburton") jet to keep his appointments while living in his publisher's rec house on the beach. It's USA all the way, so it's no surprise that Crisis No. 2 occurs when a female prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague says Lang will be charged with war crimes for sanctioning illegal snatches & renditions for the purpose of torture.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer

In his recent memoir Hitch 22, political journalist Christopher Hitchens suggests that Clinton was an informer for the State Department or CIA while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and this set him up for his great run in US politics. This might be bollocks, although most political careers have to start someplace. Lang's started in Cambridge, playing tennis and acting in a student drama club. "A great place to meet girls," he says. "But don't put that in the book." The Ghost privately thinks it's mighty strange that a student playboy who didn't give a damn about politics suddenly joins the Labour Party and quickly rises to the top, that something doesn't quite add up. It all seems too easy. Yet, as we see him, Lang appears entirely credible. He sprawls on the couch with the easy nonchalance of a man used to power, with a pop culture charisma behind his inflections and manners, easy in a group, easy on TV... or emerging from the door of a plane. As they work on the manuscript, he appears candid, even self-deprecating, although inclined towards fiction. Is this because he's a natural-born liar or because he simply has the political touch, the ability to spin the moment? Is he a leader, or is he an actor playing a leader... as his critics often suggest.

Yet, somehow, Lang never seems quite the villain his adversaries make out. He's never seen doing anything, small or big, that suggests the ruthlessness of a war criminal. Like most politicians today, he's really just a TV face for a committee. And while this might be an accurate profile, it's not very dramatic.

The Ghost is working from two versions of the truth: Lang himself, and Lang's manuscript as written by McAra. While he seems to able to work reasonably well with Lang, there is no doubt that Lang is the boss, even if in this instance he is the client. When the prosecutor says she's going ahead with the war crime charge against Lang, the Ghost suddenly finds himself co-opted into the role of spin doctor, writing Lang's press response. "Very good... you're one of us now," purrs Amelia, typing it up. Indeed. Lang flies to Washington, the Ghost retires to his empty hotel (the Fisherman's Cove). He unwinds at the bar with a whiskey, sees Lang being interviewed at the airport in Washington about the war crimes charges, hears the ex-PM effortlessly mouth the sanctimonious bullshit he, the Ghost, had dictated earlier. It's a bit much for the Ghost, who asks the barman to change the channel, settles down to watch an ice hockey game.

But he's not alone in the bar, off-season or not; another Englishman, older, is sitting behind him. The man tries to engage the Ghost, but the Ghost doesn't like his questions, pretends to be interested in the hockey broadcast.

This is a pivotal moment, and not just because the man hisses "cunt" as he exits. We think the pejorative is simply a touchy response to the Ghost's unfriendliness, when in fact it's a prefiguration. The Ghost is no longer just an anonymous writing mechanic -- he really is part of the Lang team, no mere retainer but a handler... like McAra, his dead predecessor.

His integration is swift. The international press appears on the island, smelling blood. Ruth insists that he moves out of the hotel into the compound, both for his own safety and the sanctity of the manuscript. Protestors appear at the gates, howling in the rain. Among them is the intrusive Englishman; he has a tent, a megaphone and a placard icon of his son who he loudly proclaims was sent to his death by Lang in "one of his illegal wars." We are reminded of Cindy Sheehan's indignant vigil on behalf of her son outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, or Brian Haw's aggravating war-protest encampment in Parliament Square, London.

The Ghost finds himself staying in Mike McAra's room. McAra's presence is everywhere, his slippers still below the bed, his clothes in the closet. While emptying some drawers of McAra's effects, the Ghost fortuitously notices a hidden envelope. The envelope contains early photos and memorabilia about the Langs. The important item is a photo of a student theatre group which includes Lang and a mysterious American. On the back is a phone number, written in McAra's handwriting. The number turns out to be Rycart's....

Who is Rycart? He was the British Foreign Minister when Adam Lang was the Prime Minister; like the Rt. Honorable Robin Cook in real life, he was fired (or forced to resign) from his portfolio for his opposition to the Iraq War. Now we see Rycart (Robert Pugh) on TV, bearded and righteous, supporting the attempt to put Lang on trial in the Hague.

As in all film, "time" is sometimes questionable, i.e. Rycart's amazing appearance within minutes of the Ghost's phone call from the motel at the ferry terminal. What is he doing in the neighborhood? Isn't he back in London? We think, well, he could be stalking Lang, orchestrating the protests... although this would be unseemly for the former Foreign Secretary. Perhaps this works in favor of the plot, as we never know exactly who the villain is, even when all is revealed. There are villains-within-villains, so to speak, the moral ambiguities of the real politik. When we think we've spotted discontinuity in a Roman Polanski film, chances are the discontinuity is us. Pursuit car one isn't the same model as pursuit car two when it reappears further down the road? It certainly isn't the same car when it boards the ferry. Does it have to be? Paranoia, like uncertainty, can be hallucinatory.

How does this all end? Is it to be Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock? The functional yet effective music score by Alexandre Desplat is certainly in the atmospheric mode of Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock's composer for Vertigo and other films. Villains-within-villains... cinema a clef. Is there a "key" like Mr. Memory in The Thirty Nine Steps?

While he can be shocking, there's nothing crude about the art of Roman Polanski. He cherrypicks the history of film for some sequences, yes, but he always has the original Polanski touch, the truism that makes us smile... like the Ghost washing his hand after Ruth's first touch... or Adam Lang silhouetted against the wall window, hands raised in surrender or dream fall into the next dimension... or playing to a convention of phantoms in the dunes.

Not only does the closing sequence (of the Ghost Writer) echo the fate of Oscar the writer in Bitter Moon, it also owes something to the famous visual metaphor that closes Kubrick's classic 1956 heist film, The Killing. A case could also be made that the "passing of the note" just prior to this is a refit a famous Cagney scene in White Heat.

His best film? Probably not, but it's one of his best. Voyeurism exists in place of sympathy, politics in place of humanity. While Polanski does a great job of putting us into the action, the off-stage story hangs throughout like "a ghost".

Those who follow British politics know the idealism of the Labour Party's "New Left" was compromised by its once popular leader -- not only did he follow the Bush administration into the Iraq and Afghan wars, he virtually ghosted the script for the Americans with false moral superlatives and false secret intelligence. He's a villain of our times, a media doll gone rogue. He might have a Stratocaster in the closet, but he's a born-again Christian, a man who likes going to church as much as or even more than George Bush and Dick Cheney. That, roughly, is what Blair's critics feel, and this is how it's played in The Ghost Writer, even though Adam Lang appears secular.

The idea that Blair was Bush's puppet is a strong post-911 sentiment in the UK, especially among those 3rd gen Fabians who read The Guardian and feel betrayed by Blair's pseudo socialism and autocratic presidential style. This feeling obviously influenced the script writer Robert Harris, and others, such as the producers of the widely viewed TV drama "The Trial of Tony Blair" (2007).

© Lawrence Russell / August 2010

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The Ghost Writer

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