The Ghost Writer
by Del Harvey
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I have seen the best film of the year, and it’s most likely a lot of you have not. And it’s really your loss.
This is perhaps director Roman Polanski’s finest film of his entire career. And that’s saying something. Yes, I believe it is better than Chinatown. It’s better than any other film out this year, thus far (including Inception).
I know the distributor failed to market this film as they should. And I realize it was a political move, and they’re wrong. Just plain wrong. To condemn a property just because of the creator’s personal issues - none of which are exhibited in this film - why do that? If you stop to consider how many truly creative individuals there have been throughout history who are psychologically damaged, it gives a slight perspective. I’m speaking of creative individuals like Pablo Picasso or Ezra Pound. History does not focus solely upon their personal issues, but we do tend to remember the genius of their art, which is completely separate from whatever political, sexual, or social problems they may have had.
Please do not misunderstand me - I am in no way condoning this particular director’s actions or any type of aberrant behavior for the sake of creativity. I am suggesting that that our unease with any creative individual’s personal problem(s) has little to do with our ability to appreciate their art.
So, my point - see the film, no matter what you think of the filmmaker.
The Ghost Writer has everything really great films should have. The script is smooth and polished and full of that very elusive element in so many scripts these days, substance. The characters are very real, they breathe and seethe and whimper and rant, just like real people. And, more importantly, the logic behind why they do what they do holds up. This is in large part thanks to the detailed connection between recent real events and the fictional which has been interpreted first by writer Robert Harris and then by Mr. Polanski’s script. A superb piece of work that is intelligent and deftly executed.
From there we are presented with amazing performances by a stellar collection of actors, including Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, and in lesser roles, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, and Eli Wallach. Each individual actor turns in a performance that is above par, even for some whose careers span multi-decades. MacGregor and Brosnan have the bulk of the burden on their shoulders and they keep us intrigued and interested from start to finish.
But the best performance, by far, is that of Polanski. No, he does not appear in the film, as he has in his past films. But his work here exceeds that of many directors over the past few years and in crafting such a skilled piece, reminds us why we watch films. There is an art and a craft to filmmaking, and it comes through in every shot, every frame, every angle of The Ghost Writer. His choices of composition, his use of the environment, the incorporation of sound and music composition as another actor/participant in the entire production, all of these aspects (and more) contribute equally to the overall excellent production. A lesser director would have handled all of these elements to a lesser extent; if you aren’t aware of this you might not appreciate what you are seeing.
An example of what I mean is the simple suggested threat in having a car following your lead character. This happens all the time. But in this film, the framing and the placement of the elements within the frame make all the difference, heightening our shared sense of suspense and danger as we watch our protagonist attempt to decipher just what the hell he’s gotten himself into.
The story is very topical. A former British Prime Minister has retired to the States after a long and illustrious career of policy making which, as it turns out, tended to favor the U.S. government, even to the extent of going to war. When he begins writing his memoirs, suddenly various shadow factions of both governments want to know what he will say, and what secrets he will reveal. Then his ghost writer washes up dead on the beach near the New England retreat where he was writing the book. The publishers hustle to find a replacement - queue Ewan McGregor as the lonely but highly efficient ghost writer.
Once McGregor enters the picture, we are locked into his story, following his every moment as he tries to figure out his part in all of this and still get the job done and earn his cool $250,000 for a one month job. Suddenly finding himself at the center of the ex-prime minister’s political upheaval, he becomes a shoulder to cry on for the distraught wife, an unlikely priest to the ex-prime minister’s confessions, and everyone’s punching bag. Like any other servant, he is expected to do his job and walk away untouched by all the grubby and dirty political intrigue whirling around him. But easier said than done.
In an honest world most of these actors, the department heads and the director would get nominations from all of the prestigious film festivals and award events. But politics exists beyond the screen, too, as we all know very well. So in lieu of the film and its makers receiving that perfectly appropriate level of celebratory status, I suggest you rent, buy, but somehow watch this film as soon as possible. Then see if the art does not rise above the maker.
The Ghost Writer is, for me, the best film of the year. And the year isn’t even over yet.
Releasing on BluRay and DVD, here are the specs for this very fine release.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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