Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ghost Of Movies Past

Roman Polanski is one of cinema's most notorious characters. His sexploits have earned him a date with infamy (and at present three hots and a cot in a Swiss jail), and the murder of Polanski's second wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson's "family" are the stuff of tabloid legend (if genuinely tragic). And as if that weren't enough for one man, he has also directed a number of great films, including one of my absolute favorites, 1974's Chinatown.

That being said, apart from his harrowing 2002 film The Pianist, I've managed not to see anything he's made since Chinatown. Until today's film, The Ghost Writer. Based on Robert Harris's novel The Ghost and adapted for the screen by Polanski and the author, the story tells of a writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who is roped into helping with the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan). Though reluctant, McGregor's character is railroaded into the last-minute job by an eager agent and a big paycheck. But Lang is in the midst of looming legal problems related to England's involvement with the Iraq war, and there are mysterious goings-on occurring around the Prime Minister that appear quite beyond the scope of a happy political biography. Not least of these is the sudden death of McGregor's predecessor, a man who drowned suspiciously in the midst of trying to write the Prime Minister's story.

The story unfolds very much in the vein of Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007) or Tom Tykwer's The International (2009), both of which I very much enjoyed. Polanski starts with a quiet tension that builds continuously as the plot unfolds, hurrying things up at the end as the revelations toward which we've been hurtling come flying past. This is another of these movies (like those cited above) that shows us the world really spins in response to much more powerful forces than those which seem to shape our daily lives.

The film is mostly well-cast, though really the story seems about 95% Ewan McGregor's and he's excellent. McGregor's character is quiet and unostentatious, but he has a writer's curiosity and a certain doggedness once he has his teeth into a thing. Pierce Brosnan's Adam Lang is less character and more caricature, as perhaps befits a top-rung politician. His character must necessarily be a bit shady, and we are given little reason to like him. The Prime Minister's wife is played by Olivia Williams, who is dynamite. Beautiful and powerful and decisive, she is accustomed to getting her way and she is a formidable person in every scene. McGregor's character has more dealings with her than with her husband, which certainly benefits the movie. The fabulous Tom Wilkinson makes a brief appearance, playing another of his everyman roles, a sweet-but-menacing family man who is maybe so much more. And there are nice bit parts by Timothy Hutton and a hairless Jim Belushi, who, it suddenly strikes me, looks very like myself.

But there is mystery at every turn: what exactly do his enemies have on the Prime Minister? Anything beyond the ugly realities facing anyone holding a powerful political office? What of the Secret-Service-style agents? They've clearly seen whatever skeletons are being hidden from us. And what do we make of the Asian housekeeper and her husband? She cooks and seems to be everywhere at once, seems not to speak very good English and yet we're convinced she doesn't miss any detail. The husband is shown again and again out under the menacing gray skies ridiculously trying to keep nature from encroaching on the house, a metaphor for the utterly futility of McGregor's task.

The one bit of jarring casting for me was the silicone-fed Kim Cattrall as the Prime Minister's personal secretary and plaything. Apart from looking like she sleeps in a vat of formaldehyde, her attempt to do a British accent is distractingly bad. Or is she not really trying to do an accent? It's no feather in her cap that we cannot tell. The very sight of her is a distraction (and not a good one).

The film has a fairly stark setting, with most all the action taking place in a zillion-dollar modern home on the sand dunes of an island in the Northeastern United States. It's a stunning house, and Polanski has given everything an almost black and white treatment, with leaden skies and subdued colors throughout. It's not a film noir, but with its constant rainfall and perpetual winter it leans in that direction.

One other oddity is in the film's language edits. There are quite a few instances--particularly during big speeches, unfortunately--where the actors are clearly mouthing different words (usually expletives, usually "fuck") than what we hear. I can only assume that the film was originally written to an R rating and someone decided to edit it for a PG-13 rating instead. It certainly didn't spoil the film, but it was distracting and a mite silly; no kids would be seeing this film.

In all, Mr. Polanski did not cover any new ground in the political thriller genre, but this is a nicely-crafted film and certainly worth two hours of your time.

Grade: B+


dbackdad said...

I've heard very good things about his film and McGregor is one of my favorite actors. I'll be taking this film in sometime this week before it leaves town. It's good to know that you liked it. Your tastes have been very compatibile with mine in the past.

wunelle said...

I'll be curious to know what you think of it when you see it! I'll sleep on it and see if I agree with myself in the morning. I probably should wait to publish things until I've slept on them, but this one seems a reasonably sure bet (though I see that Adam Savage, whom I admire but whose movie tastes I have no reason to trust, walked out on it).

I'm sticking with my story. It's a good film.