The Ghost Writer (2010)

Roman Polanski | 2hr 8min

There are two defining aspects of The Ghost Writer which distinguish it from the political thrillers of the 1970s. The first is its 21st century setting, far more in conversation with the war in Iraq than the era of Watergate, though examining a comparable mistrust in government affairs. The second is the distinctly British nature of the conspiracies which arise, characterising Pierce Brosnan’s fictional former prime minister, Adam Lang, as a direct surrogate of Tony Blair, drawing parallels through the allegations of war crimes levelled at them. Still, it is telling that so much of The Ghost Writer is set in the USA, and that the CIA’s infiltration of the British government plays such a significant role in its central mystery of assassinations, ciphers, and corruption. Roman Polanski is borrowing a lot from Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy here, and The Parallax View is especially prominent in The Ghost Writer’s pessimistic, circular plotting, leading Ewan McGregor’s inquisitive protagonist right into the mouth of the malevolent forces he is investigating.

Robert Harris’ 2007 novel The Ghost makes a smooth leap from page to screen here, as Roman Polanski infuses the gripping narrative with a wholly cinematic atmosphere of creeping, phantasmal dread. Desaturated blues and greys are painted through the film’s palette, washed out by the overcast skies hanging over windy seasides and rainy cities where McGregor’s nameless ghost writer is hired to pen Lang’s autobiography. This is a man who essentially lives off his own anonymity by adopting the voices of famous figures, and throughout the film much of his character is built on the foundation of ambiguous, obscured identities. His faceless predecessor, Mike McAra, only wrote the beginning of Lang’s autobiography before inexplicably drowning, making him too a ghost of sorts, haunting McGregor with clues that evaporate each time he wraps his fingers around them. Even beyond their shared profession, the similarities drawn between the two are striking, setting our protagonist on a fatalistic path formally mirroring that of the man whose death he is investigating.

A desaturated colour palette cast over washed-out interiors and cloudy skies, setting a tone of drab despair.

Clearly the ghost writer is getting close to the truth too, as while the link between Lang’s political secrets and McAra’s suspected assassination begins to emerge, Polanski continues extending the motif of indistinct identities to a mysterious, black car stalking McGregor through cities and country sides. Just as the ghost writer is nameless and McAra is faceless, so too does the driver here remain completely unknown, acting on behalf of some greater power dedicated to keeping whatever truth killed McAra under wraps.

Even the ferry that ships the ghost writer back and forth between the mainland and the island he is residing on carries ethereal, mythological connotations, beaming a light through the darkness as if carving out a path to the underworld where he is destined to rest. Sure enough, it is upon this giant, steel boat where he is very nearly killed, as the ominous black car follows him onto it right after his meeting with Professor Paul Emmett, a curious suspect mentioned in McAra’s manuscript. This huge set piece is classically Hitchcockian in its construction, staging an exhilarating chase through an uneven terrain, though formally it also serves a narrative purpose in recognising the immense, life-threatening stakes of the ghost writer’s mission.

The ferry is set up in the opening with this ghostly imagery, beaming lights through a pressing darkness.
A brilliant Hitchcockian set piece making the most of the ferry’s unusual terrain, as McGregor is chased through a field of inert cars by faceless assassins.

Beautifully complementing the film’s forward momentum is a lush, pulsating score from Alexandre Desplat, driving restless violins, woodwinds, and percussion through the mounting suspense of clues that don’t quite fit together. One local’s familiarity with the coastline offers an uncertainty as to how McAra’s body could have washed up where it did if he drowned so far away. Another local conveniently falls into a coma after seeing flashlights on the beach the night of McAra’s death. Most significant of all though are the inconsistencies arising within Lang’s own accounts, each one leading us through a labyrinth of twists and reveals that, like Chinatown, keep knocking us over with nihilistic despair.

Obscured identities become an intriguing motif woven through characters, and most prominent of all is the titular ghost writer who never has a name – much like his predecessor who never has a face.

Cruellest of all these plot beats is Polanski’s revelatory finale that almost promises some sort of grand reckoning for the powerful, corrupt elite, before snatching it away in a chilling final shot. At the book’s launch party in London, the ghost writer finally discovers the key to all his questions, though it comes far too late. As his tell-all note is passed through a crowd to Lang’s wife, Polanski’s camera moves with it from hand to hand, suspensefully anticipating the moment that it arrives at its destination and lets all key players see each other for who they are.

A close-up long take following the note passed through a crowd, leading to this daunting low angle.

The only scene that might exceed this one though is the second and final long take which immediately follows, though rather than moving with the action, it is instead planted statically in the dark, wet streets outside. Like McAra before him, the ghost writer is not even given the mercy of his death being depicted onscreen, and as such is effectively reduced to a non-entity. Though his violent murder takes place in full view of the public, there is an unsettling recognition that not even this will threaten the position of those pulling the strings. For what feels like the first time, we notice that Desplat’s dynamic score is entirely gone, and is replaced with the quiet fluttering of McAra’s revelatory, unpublished manuscript pages being carried away on the breeze. Much like the gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, these small pieces of world-changing significance are lost to a world that doesn’t realise their value, and are ultimately rendered as meaningless as the lives lost bringing them to light.

A chilling final shot, laying one last twist on us in the final seconds with barely a word spoken or beat of music.

The Ghost Writer is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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