In Theaters: The Ghost Writer
An efficient suite in the mode of Hitchcock's pure cinema, the opening of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's eminently suave town-car thriller, relaxes willing viewers right into the director's velvet grip. It comprises the arrival of a night ferry and the evacuation of the below-deck parking lot: an abandoned mini-SUV grows conspicuous; eventually it is all that remains. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman's ever-watchful camera moves in for a closer look just as a tow truck clamps down on the unclaimed vehicle's bumper, causing it to blink its lights and mewl in a protest that seems both witty and forlorn. In fact it is a hedge against the true alarm of the next image, that of an ocean-battered corpse. Just like that, we have received much of the information we will need to follow the conspiracy-driven storyline that unfolds. We have also been notified of Polanski the playful ironist's return to slow-boiling, street-slickened noir.
As though finding the friend it was searching for, in the next scene the camera lands on Ewan McGregor, playing an English writer known only as "The Ghost," and never leaves his side. In a delightfully crass horse-trading scene with his agent (Jon Bernthal) and the CEO of a publishing conglomerate named Rhinebeck (an amusingly vulgar cameo by James Belushi), the Ghost agrees to doctor the dead-weight memoir manuscript of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Bad vibes -- including a post-meeting mugging and the apparent suicide of Lang's former aide -- abound, but greed ($250,000 for a month's work) quickly outpaces The Ghost's instincts, and the long trudge toward a moral imperative begins.
"I'm on my own," The Ghost tells one of the accredited journalists preparing to besiege the Massachusetts residence of the exiled Lang, and indeed he is another in a long line of Polanski's lonely men. Installed during the battering off-season on a posh island meant to evoke Martha's Vineyard (Polanski shot the exteriors on the northern coast of Germany), The Ghost arrives just in time for a major war crimes scandal to erupt around his boss.
The least interesting and least invested of Lang's tiny coterie, which is led by his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and executive assistant Abigail Bly (Kim Cattrall), initially The Ghost observes the controlled chaos at Lang headquarters -- a modernist beach house of the bunker chic school -- with a hired gun's reticence. A pretty-boy politician (there are clear echoes of Tony Blair) with more charisma than actual charm, both Lang and his brain-parchingly dry memoir seem to offer little more than a day's work. It is the bitchy cross-talk between Ruth and Abigail (who is clearly sexing her boss) and the eerie, derelict vibe surrounding the group's self-fashioned oasis that hold the writer's attention. Polanski lingers over this section, establishing with a steady hand the mood of isolation and pausing here and there for witty asides: a groundskeeper is observed desperately sweeping some stray grass together as the hellish high winds make a mockery of his task.
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