Review: ‘Ghost Writer’-The feel of a throwback in a very modern world

29 01 2011

Ewan McGregor plays a no named author in "The Ghost Writer"

Roman Polanski’s thriller The Ghost Writer feels very much like a  film from another era (that’s a good thing) but in a very modern, relevant world. Full review after the jump…

The Details

The Ghost Writer (2010, 128 minutes, rated PG-13)

Directed by: Roman Polanski (see also: The Pianist (2002), Chinatown (1974), Rosemary’s Baby (1968))

Written by: Roman Polanski and Robert Harris, adapted from Robert Harris’ novel “The Ghost”

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams

The Review:

The Ghost Writer has become one of my favorite films of 2010, and I think this one is a hugely underrated movie. It suffered from having a early limited release (only four theaters!) date in February, a month recently reserved for bad chick flicks (Dear John (2010) and Valentine’s Day (2010)) or bad horror movies and leftovers from the year before (The Crazies (2010) and The Wolfman (2010)). The Ghost Writer, though being an excellent thriller from Polanski and a great showcase for all three of its leads, gets no awards attention almost a year later and grosses less than half of it’s production cost (at least domestically). Nobody saw this movie, and that’s a shame.

The Ghost Writer is the story of writer (Ewan McGregor) who has been asked to ghost write the memoirs of the now former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). This writer is not the first to work on Lang’s manuscript, but his predecessor mysteriously died while working on the project. Lang was a young, charismatic leader (seemingly inspired by Tony Blair) who dominated British politics and has now retired with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) in a beautiful estate on an island off the northeastern coast of the USA. This book is slated to be a huge success considering the popularity of the former leader and some current controversies surrounding him and because of this the manuscript is being heavily guarded and the writer must live and work on it at Lang’s estate. At first he finds the manuscript boring, but as he continues his research he uncovers a mystery that is sure to make for an exciting manuscript. That’s all I’ll say about the plot, and I don’t think I did a very good job of describing it, but just go with it because this movie is all about the ride.

Polanski knows how to direct a movie. That is clear from the first shot to the last. He knows what he’s doing at every turn and the final product is a perfectly paced film that moves seamlessly and still manages to build tension and suspense exactly when it needs to. He seems to be borrowing from Hitchcock often throughout this film, and if another director had attempted some Hitchcock style I don’t know that it would have worked at all. But here Polanski is so confident in his own senses that everything works. There’s a scene towards the end that feels like it belongs in a Hitchcock thriller from the 50s, not a line of dialogue is spoken and the scene just unfolds before our eyes, slowly building tension and suspense beautifully. There are numerous sequences similar to this throughout, pure cinema as we just watch the writer work and nothing needs to be said to understand. A lesser movie would spend whole scenes simply for exposition, but here Polanski trusts his audience to keep up with him. It’s a wonderful ride.

This is Polanski’s movie, he’s in control from start to finish, but his actors sure do know what they’re doing. Ewan McGregor gives one of his best performances as a man with no name, no history, and everything on the line. He has to carry the movie, but his subtle, understated performance really works with what Polanski is doing. Pierce Brosnan plays a suave, rich British guy who is NOT James Bond and it was great! He brings so much depth to this charming character with a murky past he’d rather forget. These two play really well off each other in the scenes they share, you can see how guarded each man is with the other but not around others. Two great central performances that are supported by Olivia Williams playing a woman who stand up for her husband through anything.

The Verdict:

This is one of my favorites of 2010. A great showcase for all the lead actors, and a movie proving that even though he’s 77 years old he can sure direct. It’s a smooth, stylistic, thrilling movie. Do yourself a favor and see one of the smartest movies of 2010 that wasn’t Inception.

Whose movie is it?

McGregor and Brosnan deliver great performances, and the screenplay here is really an interesting work, but all of that would be nothing without Roman Polanski and his flawless direction. So much of this movie is pure filmmaking that depends not on an actor or a single line of dialogue. This is a director’s movie.

Last Word:

Near the top of this review I talked about how nobody saw this movie, it made no money, no awards attention, and pretty much ignored for the year. That’s mostly true. In the US nobody saw this movie, it made a third of the money it took to make, and it hasn’t been nominated for a single major award. But in Europe this movie did pretty well, grossing three times what it made in the US and sweeping major awards (like the European Film Awards). But I said this because this is a great example of what is wrong with the film industry and moviegoers in America. The month this movie came out the big box office winners were Dear John, Valentine’s Day, and Shutter Island. None of these really compare to how great The Ghost Writer is.

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