Summit Entertainment // 2010 // 128 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // August 9th, 2010
Never speak his name.
Fatal Incident -- Did You Notice Anything Suspicious?
Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies) is in the midst of completing his memoirs when his long-time assistant and ghost writer mysteriously dies. His publisher brings in another Ghost (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting), a rather supercilious fellow with little interest in politics. His main qualifications seem to be that he's British and can get the job done quickly.
Lang is holed up in the U.S., and just as the Ghost is about to travel to his New England compound, scandal strikes: Lang has been accused of helping engineer the kidnapping of some British citizens and handing them over to the CIA for interrogation about suspected terrorist activities. The prisoners were tortured, and one is said to have died in captivity. Now, Lang is being accused of war crimes.
When the Ghost meets Lang, he finds the man to be a fairly affable and uncomplicated sort. Less affable and more complicated are Lang's wife (Olivia Williams, An Education) and long-time assistant (Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City), who are both fiercely protective of the former MP. He also finds that the manuscript, a hefty and fairly bland tome that's badly in need of edits and rewrites, is being guarded like some kind of state secret.
What started as a fairly mundane assignment for the Ghost is suddenly blowing up all around him. The Ghost begins to believe that his predecessor's mysterious death was actually murder, and Lang's unremarkable memoir somehow holds the key. He also starts to worry that his own life is in danger -- something he doesn't help by digging up clues and involving himself in a very unprofessional way with a member of Lang's household.
An extremely well-made political puzzler that's short on chase scenes and long on intrigue, The Ghost Writer is a thinking-person's popcorn picture. Director Roman Polanski has crafted a clear-eyed, intelligent thriller with enough twists to keep it interesting, but not so many as to make it convoluted.
Writer Robert Harris -- who adapted his own novel -- offers up characters that at the very least echo real-life world figures, particularly Brosnan's Adam Lang, who is quite obviously based on former PM Tony Blair. But Polanski and Harris are more concerned with the "thriller" aspect of this political thriller; The Ghost Writer is not an indictment of Blair or his policies, and the topicality is merely a hook, a starting point to tell a story of deceptions, conspiracies, double crosses, and a character caught up in events that he can only try to make sense of.
Polanski directs with an eye to the paranoid. McGregor's Ghost Writer is established early on as flawed -- a glib, nervous guy who drinks too much and seems to have no real personal attachments, to the point that he's able to fly off to this assignment on quite literally a moment's notice. He's suspicious of everyone around him, and since we're seeing this through his POV, so are we. Every character seems to have both an agenda and an explanation, so who's to be trusted?
Complemented by an urgent-sounding score by Alexandre Desplat, Polanski keeps the film in high-tension mode from the opening. Less intimate than his other paranoia-based thrillers -- Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, The Tenant -- Polanski directs this with a laser-like precision. The plot turns, as the Ghost tries to unravel the mystery, are very clever and never sensationalized or illogical. At 128 minutes, there is no wasted space here, and the pieces come together nicely, building to an impressive climax and a beautifully bleak closing shot.
Besides the mystery, what's intriguing is what we're not told. We see almost everything from the Ghost's point of view and are only privy to the information he has; our perceptions are based on his observations. Throughout, questions are raised, histories are hinted at. It's to Polanski's credit that we aren't given a big, climactic speech, tying up various loose ends and clarifying things that are better left surmised. That there are still unanswered questions at the end makes this all the more satisfying and provocative.
Polanski has assembled a first-rate cast. McGregor -- in a role Polanski himself might have played 30 or so years ago -- is very good as the increasingly angst-ridden Ghost Writer, and Brosnan brings his considerable charm to role of the former Prime Minister. As the two women in Lang's life -- and then, the Ghost's life -- Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams hit just the right enigmatic notes, even if Cattrall's British accent is a bit distracting.
The disc is a Blu-ray/DVD flipper. The technical work here is solid, if not outstanding. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is clean, as you would expect from a recent film, and detail is quite good. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track offers a good representation of words and music. Extras are disappointingly light: an interview with writer Robert Harris, who adapted his novel; an interview with Polanski; and a featurette on the cast, with the usual words from the main players.
NOTE: The disc played fine the first time I watched it, but on subsequent viewings, there was a problem with the "Play All" option. Instead of starting the film, it played a continuous loop of the menu screen graphics. The only way I could get the film to start was to reload the disc and access the first scene from the scene selections. Whether this is glitch with this particular disc, the disc in general, or my player, I cannot say, but just wanted to mention it.
This is a very entertaining film, but in the cold light of day, it's all really a bit simplistic. The "big reveal" is exciting and well-staged, but also a little silly and, in afterthought, not all that surprising. It's more fun playing the game than it is winning it, though knowing the secrets of The Ghost Writer actually add a nice layer to repeat viewings.
A satisfying, grown-up thriller, The Ghost Writer might not be a Polanski classic, but it's a compelling, entertaining watch. Recommended.
Isn't everyone a little guilty?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Cinema Verdict Review