Friday, March 5, 2010

Review: "The Ghost Writer"

"The Ghost Writer" starts off at a slow boil, and for a long time the plot simmers without gaining momentum. It bubbles away and doesn't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. But then the last 30 minutes or so kick into high gear, with big reveals and satisfying twists.

It's based on the novel "The Ghost" by Robert Harris, who adapted it for the screen along with director Roman Polanski.

(Polanski was still working on the film when he was incarcerated as a fugitive from justice after raping a 13-year-old girl back in the 1970s. I won't linger on the debate about whether the Polish director is a great artist or a sexual deviant, other than to say I've never understood why people insist the two are mutually exclusive.)

"The Ghost Writer" isn't among Polanski's finest works ("The Pianist," "Chinatown") but it's certainly a worthy mystery/thriller.

Ewan McGregor plays the (unnamed) ghost, or ghost writer, for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, clearly enjoying himself.) Lang -- who bears a not-at-all accidental similarity to Tony Blair -- was popular but drew criticism near the end of his term for playing poodle to American interests.

Just as the ghost arrives at Lang's secluded beach mansion to fix up the dry memoirs, one of his former ministers (Jon Bernthal) steps forward with allegations that his boss aided in the kidnapping of British citizens to be waterboarded by the CIA.

After Lang decamps to deal with the charges, the ghost starts digging into the mystery. His predecessor, a longtime Lang aide, drowned mysteriously on the same island, and the ghost finds photographs and documents among the deceased's effects that don't jibe with the autobiographical history Lang provided.

Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) gave up her own political ambitions to foster her husband's, and resents how his life overshadows and restricts hers. She certainly has charismatic skills of manipulation, which she's soon exercising on the writer.

The ghost's investigation eventually leads to the secluded house of a Harvard professor (a great Tom Wilkinson) whose connections to Lang may be more than meets the eye.

Mysterious men start following the writer around, as the cat-and-mouse game gains intensity and energy.

Nowadays most movies of this sort start out strong and peter out with an illogical or unnecessary ending. "The Ghost Writer" moves in the opposite direction, dithering early on and growing stronger and more purposeful as it goes.

The biggest weakness of the film is the ghost, who never gains any substance as a character. We don't know anything about who he is, so it's peculiar that a professed political agnostic would become so obsessed in ferreting out the truth.

I won't reveal anything about the big twist at the end, other than to say it will probably bolster the mood of those contemptuous of the Bush/Blair anti-terror strategy. For Polanski, the horrors of history are an ample springboard for his distinctive, neurotic style of filmmaking.

3 stars

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