I was about a half hour into watching The Ghost Writer before I realized/remembered that it was directed by Roman Polanski. There was something in the way Ewan McGregor was framed on the screen, with the landscape behind him that told me. Something about how Eli Wallach slowly walked out of a doorway that had just that hint of Rosemary’s Baby. The way Olivia Williams looked at Pierce Brosnan that brought back Frantic. The wondering exactly who might be Kim Cattrall’s never-seen but often referred-to husband that suggested Chinatown.
We never learn McGregor’s character’s name. He is truly a ghost as he travels in the background of the world of British ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Brosnan, who may have his best role and performance here. The Ghost has been hired to “fix” Lang’s memoirs, which he finds to be singularly unimpressive, ” … the cure for insomnia,” but he is quickly drawn into the strange, sealed-off world that Lang and his coterie of bodyguards, employees, friends, and family inhabits. The Ghost becomes interested in them and their secrecy, and promises that he can deliver the goods, ” … all the words are there, they’re just in the wrong order.” Sitting in a hotel bar watching Lang on television making an official and hopefully career and image-saving statement using words he, the Ghost, has crafted, underlines how quickly integrated into Lang’s life he has become, yet also how invisible.
The Ghost Writer is based on a novel by Robert Harris, who used Tony Blair and his relationship with the U.S. during the war with Iraq as the basis for the character of Lang and much of the plot machinations. The movie could be read simply on that level, as a political thriller with contemporary parallels, but the viewer would miss so much more. The Ghost Writer is a subtle movie. Its surfaces are not exactly sleek, but they are practically monochromatic, hiding the deeper, more intense colors that must be roiling beneath the surface grays. It has standard mystery, suspense, and thriller elements, but it is much more than its on-the-surface political plot. It touches on the inevitability that our connections with certain people, certain times, certain projects, have on our and their ultimate fates. It is also a bit of a horror movie — a sense of dread permeates every scene. It’s one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. And one of the best-looking.
Polanski presents a series of ghost and shadow figures: Lang’s original ghostwriter, who is found dead — washed up on a nearby beach, his successor who seems fated to follow the clues the first ghost has left behind, the prime minister’s wife who is the real power behind the throne, a college professor and old classmate of Lang’s who seems inexplicably sinister. Harris, who cowrote the script with Polanski, has stated in an interview that Blair had ostensibly been a ghostwriter to President Bush when giving public reasons for invading Iraq. There are shadows within shadows.
There is a scene in the middle of the film, when Lang, surrounded by advisors, learns that he has been accused of war crimes and can no longer go home to London or any country that is part of the International Criminal Court. Frustrated, he asks, “Where can I go?” and is informed that he can remain in the U.S., or travel to China, India, and maybe a few places in Africa — all countries who are not members of the Court or its jurisdiction. Polanski is definitely pointing to his own situation, but the self-reference, which could have been maudlin, isn’t. It is a grim fact of both Polanski’s and Brosnan’s character’s existence that they have been living like quasi-prisoners for years. As beautiful as the beachfront island estate is where Lang resides, it is also a bunker.
In 1977 Polanski pled guilty to a single count of having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 years old at the time. Polanski admitted to having sex with the girl, and did 42 days in prison for the crime, but fled the U.S. before final sentencing, as he was convinced the judge in the case would not give him a fair hearing. He has lived as a fugitive ever since, initially fleeing to France, where he became a citizen, and was protected from extradition to the U.S. Geimer has long since moved on from the original crime and just wants the courts and the media to leave her family and even Polanski free to lead their lives, as she feels they have both been misused by the legal system.
Polanski also has a house in Switzerland, and was able to come and go until September 2009, when the U.S. insisted he be put under house-arrest awaiting extradition. Many in the film industry, including Woody Allen, Wong Kar Waï, Patrice Leconte, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Tilda Swinton, Wim Wenders, and Tom Twyker signed a petition protesting the director’s arrest. The U.S.’s extradition request was ultimately rejected by the Swiss and Polanski is once again “free.”
As reported in the New York Times, the director had to be a bit of a ghost himself while making The Ghost Writer, ” … Mr. Polanski occasionally avoided the set, directing through a remote communications setup … ” Polanski’s paranoia trickled into the character of the Ghost, who starts to look over his shoulder at the slightest sound, convinced that someone is after him for what he may know, even though he is still not sure what that could be. The Ghost meets with a former colleague of Lang who tries to alleviate his fears about Lang, “He can’t drown two ghost writers, for god’s sake. You’re not kittens!”
It’s hard for many to divorce the artist from their art, the person from the work. An artist puts themselves into their work, as is on evidence in The Ghost Writer. But the film is not the man. Polanski has done time for his crime. He has admitted that what he has done was wrong. The desire to continue to punish him seems strange, but like the Ghost, somehow inevitable for this director who has been chasing ghosts all his life — at the age of 10 he escaped the Kraków Ghetto in 1943 posing as a Roman Catholic named Romek Wilk, and he has had to live with the guilt that he was out of town when his beloved wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in 1969.
All of the events in an artist’s life can be seen as ghosts and shadows in their work. Polanski may have stronger shadows than most. But he also makes stronger movies. The Ghost Writer is a wonderful, paranoid, hopeless, and intriguing film.