Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ghost Writer (2010)--First Rate Thriller Produces A Grim Shadow of Real Life Events

Genre: Drama
(right) Former Prime Minister Andrew Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and his newest
scribe (Ewan McGregor) have a bit of tense communication in a scene from "The Ghost Writer".

This adaptation of the Robert Harris novel "Ghost" marks Roman Polanski's return to the thriller films like "A Knife in the Water" (1962), "Repulsion" (1965) and "Chinatown" (1974) that he excels at. Although I certainly don't endorse Mr. Polanski's past behaviors with under age girls, it's undeniable he is one of the best living directors working in films today.

The film concerns a hired ghost writer of celebrity memoirs who agrees to shape up the biography of ex-British Prime Minister Andrew Lang. (The previous ghost-writer drowned accidentally in the waters off Massachusetts' cold Atlantic shore--or so that's the official story.)

The protagonist encounters a large bunker-like VIP beach house where Lang is holed up with his nervous and weary wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), a pack of security personnel, and his tough and alluring personal secretary Amelia (Kim Catrall) whom Ms. Lang strongly suspects of being Lang's mistress. The whole set-up crackles with personal tension.

The writer has just a few weeks to make a workable product out of Lang's verbal ramblings and boring political anecdotes. He is a one time Cambridge University actor who took a sudden interest in politics and rose quickly to the leadership of the Labour Party in the 80's and 90's. Brosnan and the writers do a good job here creating a PM who is at times charming, easy-going and a little superficial (good qualities for an American leader to project as well) but quick-tempered and a tight-lipped person once the doors close. Lang is a man who has been following a script long after he ceased being an actor. The question at the center of the film is: Who is writing that script? Lang himself, or the CIA?

(I personally have found it hard to get through modern politicians memoirs, and pretty much have given them a pass in the last few years. It seems the more powerful someone was, the less likely it is he or she can be candid about what actually happened while they were in office. And all memoirs written by future candidates are inevitably guarded and coy.)

The tension ratchets up nicely when the writer discovers that Lang has been charged with being a war criminal by human rights groups and by his ex-foreign minister for allowing four British citizens to be seized by the CIA and taken to a "black ops" site where one of them died in custody. There is also the question of Lang stretching the "special relationship" between Her Majesty's government and the Americans to a point where he was all too eager in the past to do what Washington wanted in matters of war and national security . (Does any of this sound familiar?)

The films has enough twists and red herrings to satisfy not only political types but also those who enjoy a good tale of intrigue and underhandedness told with intelligence and wit. The film works well in part because right up to the end you are not sure what to make of Andrew Lang or those closest to him and the writer, like any good writer, is overcome with a searing desire to simply tell the truth--if he can only live long enough to find out what it is.

The whole cast of this film does an excellent job. Both Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall make the most of their supporting roles. I had my doubts about the fetching former "Sex and the City" star playing such a steely power player, having only seen her in comic roles heretofore, but she obviously can handle more subtle dramatic roles than she has ever found in Hollywood assignments.

The Cast

Ewan McGregor The Ghost
Kim Cattrall Amelia Bly
Olivia Williams Ruth Lang
Pierce Brosnan Adam Lang
Timothy Hutton Sidney Kroll
Tom Wilkinson Paul Emmett
Robert Pugh Richard Rycart
James Belushi John Maddox
Eli Wallach Old Man
Jon Bernthal Rick Ricardelli

Screenplay by Robert Harris and Roman Polanski.


  1. Yes very Doug. I think it is interesting that recent history is being retold in the fictionalised form of a movie thriller. I too share your admiration for Roman Polanski by the way Doug and perhaps it is his own fugitive status that allows him to reveal this open secret to cinema audiences, he is already an 'outlaw' in the US, moving toward the end of his own life and with nothing left to lose, in other words he is artistically 'free'.

    Extradition real and threatened is a subject that Mr Polanski will have an inside view of no doubt.

    Obviously Lang is Blair in what seems to be a thinly veiled plot and (almost) everybody will know it.

    This device of fictionalising unpalatable truths is of course as old as the hills.
    I'm sure you will be able to cite many examples from Shakespeare (to George Orwell) much more comprehensively than I can Doug.

    A film that exposes the 'special relationship', the CIA script and the superficiality of Tony Blair, erm I mean Andrew Lang (Whose Scots name is also a reference to Blair I think) is to be welcomed. The only thing that might throw audiences of the scent is that the real Tony Blair was never 'charming' and his manic wife was never as 'nervous and weary' as she should have been, otherwise it sounds as if it is right on the money.
    So let's now see Tony Blair sue Roman Polanski that really would be game, set and match to the old master I think
    Thanks for the review Doug I'll try to see this film when it arrives in striking distance of here.

  2. I haven't seen this yet, but it's on my list!

  3. So, we get to be the "bad guys" again, eh?
    Oh well, someone has to, I guess.

  4. UPDATE I have just booked to see the film next Friday at The Electric my favourite independent cinema in Birmingham, where I have not been for about 12 years, but where I used to go all the time when I was a lad.
    Thanks for the heads-up Doug, I'll let you know what I make of it next weekend :-)


    The Electric Cinema in Birmingham is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Built in 1909 the cinema has gone through many incarnations and name changes. Although Birmingham once had over 100 cinemas, amazingly The Electric remains as the only independent cinema left in the city today.

  5. Quite true, AA. It cannot escape anyone with a causal interest in foreign affairs that Lang's predicament in the film--facing a potential future as an outlaw who cannot leave a specific country for fear of being jailed is exactly the one shared by Polanski, and I suspect one that has crossed the mind of Tony B more than once or twice in the last few years.

    I wonder if old Roman sent him an autographed copy of the screenplay, or authored him a chance to use the film as a fund-raiser for that "peace works" NGO he's heads when he flies about the Middle East not solving things?

    Don't know if Young Mr. Blair was an actor at university? He seems the "lounge lizard" type to me and perhaps would have extended his range as a fine Octavian in The Bard's "Julius Caesar".

    I wonder if Mr. Harris or Polanski wanted to throw a bit of Ronald W. Reagan into the mix with this thespian back-story of Lang. If you want superficiality in high places, you needn't strain yourself to find the right fellow in America's former "Prince of Players". Brosnan has a good deal of the charming black Irishman about him, something I also saw in spades with "The Gipper". Of course,

    Blair is the target but the manic wife Ruth Lang reminds me of Nancy Reagan, the woman who ironically met "Ronnie" as she called him in 1951 when he was "vetting" her to make certain she was not a member of the Communist Party and could continue to be allowed to make "B" movies as he was engaged in. I think historians have given short-shrift by the way to the Hollywood Blacklist as an early source of producing love matches.

    Reagan met Nancy when he was still a Democrat (albeit a likely supported of the moderate Republican candidate General Eisenhower) and in a few years of their marriage 'Ronnie" was as far right politically as you could find. (The influence on the future President by his father-in-law, Dr. Loyal Davis, a reactionary and racist Chicago surgeon and step-father to the future First Lady played a major role in his strange middle-aged political about-face.)

    Yes, let Blair drag the film-maker into court. How fun! But I don't think he'd do so for fear of all sorts of cats coming out of the bag--in a court of law no less!

  6. Hope you get a chance to see it, Jacquie.

  7. Yes, we are the bad guys I'm afraid.

    The friend I saw it with called the film "Polanski's Open Love Letter to America" when the lights went up. A good summing up there.

  8. Outstanding AA! I certainly look forward to reading any takes you might have on this cinematic "roman a clef".

    The Electric Cinema is such a great old name for a theater! Hope that sme of the original building or design is still with us. Independant cinemas are so rare these days. Ther are at best a handful in San Francisco which was also, back in the 1940's, the home of dozens of studio-owned picture palaces and indie neighborhood movie houses.

  9. Well I went to see the film Doug which in the UK is called just 'The Ghost'. It deals with a subject that I have been blogging on for years and therefore held a particular fascination for me.

    The idea that Tony Blair was and is a CIA asset is a theme of my posts and I found it gratifying that this once controversial notion is now in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic. I enjoyed the film very much and admired Roman Polanski's cinematic expertise, although it was no advert for Martha's Vineyard that is portrayed as a God-forsaken windswept,rain-lashed set of sand dunes that reminded me of Lincolnshire without the cabbages. To be fair the beach scene was filmed in Denmark, but many of the locations used in the film are indeed in Massachusetts which is strictly a 'high season' destination I think.
    To me the one truly Hitchcockian bit of the film is when the Sat-Nav becomes the narrator, the automated instructions add to the paranoiac tenseness and forcefully illustrates that the ghost writer is completely on his own in an environment where even the weather is hostile.

    When your Sat-Nav becomes the only 'contact' you can trust you are in trouble I think.

    Without giving away the plot I must say that I live in hope that the film is a prophetic, the outcome for Lang is a truly cathartic moment for me. In real life Mrs Blair is rather more of an air head than the fictional Ruth Lang is portrayed in the film, but as such she would of course have made the perfect CIA asset. Both characters are 'sexed up' but that is entertainment I guess.

    Thanks for raising my awareness of this film Doug, it was my first cinema experience for over 10 years and an enjoyable one which has set me on a train now that I have seen the trailers for other movies I want to see at The Electric.

  10. LOL! Heaven forbid, AA.

    I know what you mean though. The movie paints what is supposed to be a resort area and turns into an edge-of-the-world outpost.

  11. I'm very glad you enjoyed the film AA.

    When I read the newspaper reviews of this film, I did actually think right away of many of your posts on Tony Blair. You seem to have tapped into an idea that cried out for a storyline. An all too plausible one I'm afraid. I guess they had to make Ms. Lang smarter than her prototype to avoid a lawsuit.

    I thought when the Ghost handed Ms. Lang that little note toward the end of the film that here was something Hitchcock would have enjoyed---- or would have thought up had he been keen to make a political film like this. It reminded me of the scene with the secreted key held tightly in Ingrid Bergman's dainty hand from the party scene in 1946's "Notorious".

    Glad again you enjoyed the night out at the cinema.

  12. Your encyclopedic knowledge of film leaves me at a loss to comment on that one, but your review resulted in another satisfied customer of Mr Polanski's output so thanks again for that Doug.

  13. I just read this book....nice to see the film lives up to the written word.

  14. I read one of Harris other books, "Fatherland",which was a alternative history of WWII. That was was also very gripping ,well-written and clever plot-wise.

  15. Fatherland is one of my favorite books! I think HBO did a movie based on it starring Rutger Hauer and Miranda Richardson...

  16. Yes, that's right! That's one I still need to see. Thanks for the reminder Shedrick.