'The Ghost Writer' offers tension, haunting mediocrity

By Michael Richter

In many ways, Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” go hand in hand. Both are based on novels, set on remote islands, released on Feb. 19, and are moderately entertaining thrillers from directors who have done better work. In the film world, Polanski is best known for his early neo noir films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” as well as his 2002 masterpiece “The Pianist.” Despite some flaws in his most recent effort, his talent for cinematography and structure elevate “Ghost Writer” out of B movie territory.From the very first scene, Polanski’s skills as a director draw you into the tension of the movie. The story takes place on an unnamed island retreat off America’s Eastern seaboard. Former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has retreated to his vacation home there to complete his memoirs. Unfortunately, his personal assistant who was helping him with the project is murdered, and he is forced to bring in Ewan McGregor to finish the job (you never learn the actual character’s name).

The plot gets going when the nondescript ghostwriter learns about the shady dealings behind Lang’s political life. Just after his arrival on the island, McGregor learns that Lang was allegedly involved in an illegal scheme to hand terrorist suspects over the CIA for some enhanced interrogation techniques. From this, McGregor goes on a search for answers that leads him to question the reason for his predecessor’s murder. Did he discover something hidden in Lang’s past? Is this information hidden in the unfinished memoirs he left behind?

On top of all these problems, McGregor has to deal with the world of sexual intrigue. He soon finds out that Lang is involved in a love triangle that includes his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and the older woman from “Sex and the City” (Kim Cattrall). This subplot really hammers home Polanski’s point that politicians are naturally flawed people driven by vice and corruption.

Looking at Brosnan’s character, one cannot help but make a comparison to Tony Blair. His character is described as being a part of the “War on Terror,” and like Blair his political enemies try to accuse him of war crimes. Also, many people accuse Blair of being a pawn of the U.S., which takes the form of Brosnan’s shady connection to CIA torture programs. All these details help make the movie a little more timely and relevant.

While all main actors put in decent performances, the strength of the film is undoubtedly Polanski’s direction. He manages to keep the audience engaged throughout the movie and make McGregor’s character less run of the mill than the average thriller protagonist. His skills as a cinematographer are also on display, with brilliant camera work adding to already stylish surroundings. However, “Ghost Writer” lacks some of the elegance and thematic power of some of Polanski’s other work. Perhaps his overly publicized legal problems, which came just after the filming, got in the way of his editing process.

Despite its flaws, “The Ghost Writer” is a worthwhile thriller for someone who likes stylish moviemaking or veiled political commentaries. It is now playing at The Grandview.