Mar 3, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Except for a fantastic opening scene of magnificent, menacing simplicity, a spectacular closing scene and some very sly and delicious Polanskian touches in between, I must say I do not share the enthusiasm that the NY film critics and my friend Joel are bestowing on this latest film by my beloved Roman Polanski.
I enjoyed The Ghost Writer because it is gorgeous to look at (bravo, Pavel Edelman, director of photography). Because Ewan McGregor is gorgeous to look at, and so in a way is Pierce Brosnan. I enjoyed it because it has those little masterful stylistic touches that give me a frisson of pleasure in every Polanski film. Because there's Eli Wallach, 500 years old, still delivering his lines with a twinkle in his eye. And Tom Wilkinson, perfect as always. The wry, European sense of humor, the pristine beauty of the mise en scene. Some beautiful framing. Yes. But the script feels sloppy. It's like watching a Hitchcockian thriller and a political intrigue film that don't quite seem to jell together. There are several huge implausibilities that I had tremendous trouble ignoring. This may be forgiven of lesser talents, but not of Polanski, a director that, in my never humble opinion, is in the pantheon of the Gods of Cinema.
However, kudos to the production team for filming a movie in Germany and making it look convincingly like Massachusetts (something Stanley Kubrick was unable to do with New York in Eyes Wide Shut). I checked the credits because it looked way too authentic. Indeed, plates were filmed in the US and then seamlessly integrated to the film. Well done!
It is impossible not to read some of Polanski's personal backstory into his films. Whether this is right or not, it's a big part of the enjoyment. This film seems to be his little revenge against the US. Something like, "you puritanical hypocrites torture people, you instigate wars under false premises, you lie and you cover up and you lie some more, and you are still giving me shit over something that happened 40 years ago, and for which I was already tried, and punished in a court of law (and forgiven by the victim)".
I strongly recommend the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired for clarification on the very strange, complex and fascinating circumstances of his trial. Regardless of the fact that he acted despicably, he was given a very unfair trial by a crazy judge, which is why he fled. But I digress.
As the critics have pointed out, Polanski is a master of disquiet, paranoia and persecution. The reason why I adore him, is because he knows, like Hitchcock, that evil breathes among us, is within us, blooms unencumbered at all times.
Ewan McGregor plays the ghost writer for a Tony Blairesque character whose first ghost writer is found dead under mysterious circumstances. He starts getting nosy. It's a cover up story, reaching the highest echelons of government, but who cares if the CIA has infiltrated the British government? What else is new?
I'm much more disturbed by a rabbit slowly attaining putrefaction in Catherine Deneuve's apartment in Repulsion, or, in a similar but much more disturbing vein, Polanski himself going crazy in The Tenant. We know the CIA is everywhere. Next!
I also felt that even though the sense of menace was subtle and ever present, the pacing of the movie dragged a little. My biggest problem is that the plot is farfetched, contrived and a little puerile.
But there are many small pleasures. My favorite scene is Ewan McGregor going into the bathroom in a panic because his boss' wife is making the moves on him. He looks into the mirror and says to himself "Bad Idea" before proceeding anyway. Maybe Polanski wishes he had the presence of mind as he led a 13 year-old unescorted girl into Jack Nicholson's jacuzzi in the drug addled 70s?
I love his sense of humor.
Some scenes are just beautiful to look at. A gorgeous tracking shot on a little piece of paper being passed around from hand to hand. A caretaker futilely trying to rake some leaves against the cold Cape Cod wind, like something out of Waiting for Godot. That same man framed by curtains in the only scene in the movie where curtains are closed. Although I adore composer Alexandre Desplat, I felt the music was too overwrought, trying to be Bernard Herrmanesque without quite achieving it. Ewan McGregor's considerable charm kept me entertained. I just didn't buy the plot.

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