Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Ghost Writer

Writes Andrew O'Hehir in Salon:

In both the novel and the film, McGregor's ghostwriter is an intentionally inscrutable figure, a man with no name, no family and no past who is enlisted to craft former Prime Minister Adam Lang's memoirs precisely because he knows nothing about politics. Lang, played by Brosnan with his trademark air of lordly, raffish distraction, is hidden away at his American publisher's Massachusetts beach house, ostensibly to get the book finished but also because the International Criminal Court is about to indict him for war crimes. Lang's government allegedly allowed the CIA to abduct British terrorism suspects and "render" them to third-party nations where they were tortured; conveniently, the U.S. doesn't recognize the world court's authority and won't extradite him.

If that all sounds highly plausible, that's because Harris' novel is clearly meant as a scathing indictment of Blair, Britain's real-life former P.M., who was twice elected with massive majorities but now is widely seen at home as a shameless lackey for George W. Bush's foreign policy. Polanski isn't much interested in the story's political ramifications, and the extent to which Lang's legal dilemma mirrors his own is nothing more than bizarre coincidence. (Shooting on "The Ghost Writer" had completed before Polanski was arrested in Zurich last September.)

Instead, Polanski crafts something like a devious four-hand chamber play, set largely inside the forbidding, modernist beach house -- the movie was mainly shot on a Berlin soundstage, using green screens for exterior backdrops -- and featuring McGregor as the dewy-eyed outsider who wanders unawares into a nest of vipers. Besides the vague but affable Lang, the denizens include his long-suffering wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), who becomes the ghostwriter's confidante while nursing her own secrets, and Lang's coolly efficient assistant (Kim Cattrall), who may also be his lover.

Harris' original title points to a fifth, unseen member of the household: Lang's original ghostwriter and longtime chief of staff, who recently drowned under mysterious circumstances. McGregor almost literally steps into the dead man's shoes, moving into his room and inheriting his belongings, including the hidden files that suggest the departed biographer had begun to fill in the mysterious blanks in Adam and Ruth Lang's early political history. If Tony Blair may well be angered by Brosnan's portrayal of a vain, arrogant and painfully small-minded politician who has been imprisoned by his own empty rhetoric, Cherie Blair has reason to be flattered: Olivia Williams' Ruth is by turns beautiful, damaged, angry and brilliant -- and a step or two in front of everyone else in the film.

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