Saturday, March 20, 2010

Polanski's "Ghost" like solid, not great, Hitchcock

The Ghost Writer (2010)
128 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

If you read your trades, you know Roman Polanski was arrested last year in Switzerland and now placed on house arrest. And during all of that, he also went through every step to making and finally editing his latest film, "The Ghost Writer." But let's separate the man's life from the man's work. "The Ghost Writer" is a smart, smoothly orchestrated political thriller, very much in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.

Ewan McGregor, underplaying it as usual, plays a patsy, also a ghost writer. No name, just known as “the ghost writer” or “ghost” for short. He's hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (well played by Pierce Brosnan), à la Tony Blair, with the use of his manuscript. The ghost writer comes to stay inside Lang's political household, some cool architectural digs in Martha's Vineyard à la Camp David. There he has Lang's very loyal assistant (Kim Cattrall) and his political-activist wife (Olivia Williams). The more the ghost writer learns about his subject, the deeper he gets himself into danger, like his predecessor. 

Polanski is a man who knows how to move the camera and keep an audience on edge. Although it has no great thrills, "The Great Writer" depends on paranoia and a “whom can you trust” air of suspense. There's also clever use of a GPS during a car chase. A little dense and “inside” story-wise, but the mystery keeps us off-balance as we're mostly in doubt of who's on who's side or who's doing what. Like Hitchcock, Polanski has a sardonic sense of humor. Along with Alexandre Desplat's score, the film has a deft handling of wry humor without ever being a cold thriller. The performances are also very good: McGregor is the audience's eye, as we're on the same page as he is, and he keeps the movie together. Brosnan is given one of his better performances in a while playing a suit, even if he's given less scenes than the ghost writer himself. Cattrall's British accent often goes in and out, but she's credible enough as Lang's plus-one and shows her range for drama when she's not playing Samantha Jones. In a tiny role, Tom Wilkinson juices it up as one of Lang's former colleague friends. 

Polanski's most tense and beautifully shot moment comes at the climax, when we discover complications of the plot unraveling, all the way to the final shot. While not the filmmaker's best (that would be "Chinatown") nor his most evil ("Rosemary's Baby"), it's one of the better thrillers to come down the pike in a while.

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