Ghost Writing

What to call Polanski’s latest? In America it’s THE GHOST WRITER, a rather pedantic and factual title with nothing evocative or provocative about it. Here in Britain it’s THE GHOST, a title it shares with Robert Harris’s novel, a title reflected in the film, where the nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor refers to himself as “your ghost.” So the shorter title should be the preferred choice, right? But it’s obvious from the film’s artful end credits that THE GHOST WRITER is the name it’s been produced under, and the tacked-on main title at the start betrays Polanski’s obvious intent to start the movie without any titles at all.

Whatever we decide to call it, it’s a very fine film. I’m not sure Polanski would see it as a political film, although the backdrop is politics and it takes a jaundiced view of certain very recognizable real-world figures. Certain qualities, like the savage joke of an ending, can be seen both as evidence of the director’s earnestness or his flippancy. Certainly the behaviour of the hero at the end, and the readiness of the antagonists’ response, do not promote a view of the film as fundamentally realistic, but a movie can enter the paranoid mindset of the genre thriller without abandoning political engagement… I’m just not sure.

None of which hampered my enjoyment of the film, especially the playing. McGregor is having a very good year, and Olivia Williams should rise to preeminence on the back of this. Pierce Brosnan has always been a funny guy, and he’s hugely enjoyable as the intellectually lazy former PM, avoiding any hint of impersonation (we have Michael Sheen if we need a precise copy) and insisting on his character’s reality within the film, rather than depending on Tony Blair’s outside it. None of which is intended as any disrespect to Sheen.

“Don’t grin,” says Williams to Brosnan’s image on TV, and I can imagine Polanski saying the same thing to McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much. Actually, Brosnan on TV is the only wrong note: he’s slurring his words strangely, in what must be intended as his “statesman” voice, perhaps meant to sound like Albert Finney as Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but coming off more like Albert Finney in THE DRESSER. Weird.

The other weird notes I thought were quite good, really. When McGregor finds some old photos of Brosnan at university, the images are pathetically photoshopped and deeply ludicrous, but it seemed sort of apt that Tony Blair should have a past constricted via Stalinist revisionism, retouched photos of a retouched life, something from 1984. And it’s his world we’re living in, so the digital sky replacements, adding smudgy watercolour greys to every background, not quite convincingly, added something too. Blair/Brosnan has brought the English weather with him.

Of course this Blair is called Adam Lang, and the movie begins with a nice swipe from THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, a single unmoving car among many mobile ones signifying the death of its occupant. But generally Polanski avoids Langian flourishes, maintaining the more relaxed, fluid and unshowy style he’s inhabited since THE PIANIST. His actors and slow trickle of conspiracy plot are more than enough to hold the attention.

Back to those actors: an amusing scene with Scotsmen McGregor and David Rintoul both pretending to be English. Irishman Brosnan plays Scottish, Tom Wilkinson plays American (as a sort of sinister Robert Osborne) and the only person who’s unconvincing is Kim Cattrall, playing English — despite the fact that she IS English. I quite like KC, but she does sometimes mismatch the pitch of her perf to what’s going on around her: BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was another case where she was a notch or two more shrill than everyone else, which was a seriously bad idea in that movie. Keep your head down and hope nobody spots you, would be my advice.

Rintoul, who was in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, is further evidence of my theory that Polanski casts Brits he remembers from 60s/70s horror movies. This probably started with Jon Finch in MACBETH, and Finch’s VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Barbara Jefford was in THE NINTH GATE. Not a coincidence, since she makes so few films. Add Peter Copley (OLIVER TWIST / FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), Frank Finlay (THE PIANIST / TWISTED NERVE) and Roy Kinnear (PIRATES / TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and it starts to look like some kind of strange plan

Other welcome faces this time: Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach. Wallach is a special joy. When viewing a very elderly actor, especially one as explosive as he, I generally have two slight fears: that the actor will overplay uncontrollably and embarrass us both, or that he’ll just kind of keel over in mid-sentence. Neither happens here. Result! Better yet, Wallach reminds us how exhilarating and intensely focused a performer he is.

Meanwhile, this is a very fine film, with interesting connections to CHINATOWN (Lang’s oriental servants, the drowning death of a witness…) and a measured control of pace that continually pays off in viewer fascination. My favourite little moment was probably when McGregor pauses midway through the intractable manuscript, looks out the window, and sees the Asian help loading beach debris from the porch into a wheelbarrow, while the wind blasts it out as soon as he turns his back. A perfect analog for the creative process on a bad day.

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35 Responses to “Ghost Writing”

  1. I found this to be more leaden than thrilling. Lang’s impromptu speech, although strangely slurred, seemed eloquent enough for him not to need a ghost writer at all. If Polanski’s not that interested in politics it makes me wonder why he chose this project – the extraordinary rendition element is shrugged off about half way through. What kept me going were the occasional flourishes of humour, enlivened by Ewan McGregor’s fine Dudley Moore impression.

  2. I like your observation about Polanski’s use of British horror actors; more or less in the Hammer vein, so to speak. Fearless Vampire Killers is obviously inspired by Hammer.

    I mentioned in another post that I particularly appreciated the scene in the Ghost Writer, where McGregor discovers his hotel room has been broken into, so he goes down to an empty darkened lobby, which full of maritme kitschy furniture. No one is at the front desk, he rings or calls out to someone, suddenly this young woman stumbles out, half asleep from behind a curtain, dressed in a “wench’s” costume. She tells him that no one else is at the hotel.

    As a side note, it was Polanski’s daughter that plays the “wench”

    It may be a bit difficult for me to convey the creepy nuance of the scene, but its a bit reminiscent of the Castle, which I guess could be considered a sort of template for the film, although there are many similar narrative models.

    To me, it looked as though McGregor was glowing with admiration for Eli Wallach, in his scene with him.

    But after this, I thought the film was so-so.

    I saw Bitter Moon when it came out, but not since. I really liked it, although I know it has many detractors. How do you rate that film?

  3. rosemurasaki Says:

    Please forgive me for linking to a piece I wrote, but I reckon it’s relevant: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/apr/08/first-person-narrative-the-ghost

    Polanski is THE master of the first person narrative, which is one of the reasons I found The Ghost so absorbing, above and beyond the actual narrative content. See also just about everything else he ever directed, including Chinatown, which is ALL shot from the PoV of Nicholson’s character, not just via subjective camera but by simple camera placement.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    There is no way anyone can convince me that Polanski’s current problems with the US authorities are unrelated to THE GHOST. Clearly, the White House and the Pentagon (not to mention 10 Downing Street) cannot have the film banned outright – as we still live in the illusion of a free society.

    I think poor old Polanski’s current woes are a result of simple mean-spiritedness. “You give us a hard time, we’ll give you a hard time…”

    Or are we meant to to believe that anyone still cares what happened in Jack Nicholson’s house back in 1976?

  5. It was only re-reading an interview with Harris that it struck me why I found this perfectly enjoyable film so unsatisfying. In this interview, Polanski is reported as saying (approvingly) of the source material “It’s fucking Chandler”! He’s right, and yet the basic joke of this conceit – ghost writer as private dick, a sleazy professional thrown into the spider’s web of high society – seems utterly fudged in the final product, both by McGregor’s “default likeable” persona (Brit noir hero this is the one thing Clive Owen excels at), and more crucially by the ugliness of his surroundings, something Polanski clearly intended.
    Lang’s place should surely suggest beautiful-but-deadly, rather than Hitler’s bunker decorated by the Manson family. Lang himself should be charming and inscrutable, not sweaty and tetchy. His safehouse is so effectively presented as a place to be avoided that the *emotional* tension of a noir (are you going to sell your soul for the good life?) is fatally absent (what’s the point when the good life looks so ugly). Six-figure salaries get bandied about but the nihilistic mise en scene makes these figures meaningless and without the understanding of what it’s like to go hungry the story never really grabs hold. There are wonderful images, yes, Olivia Williams is a revelation (ironically perhaps, Polanski has a real knack for shooting women d’un certain age) and Eli Wallach yay, but ultimately this was another likable Ninth Gate (Depp appears to be another of these default performers) when it should have been fucking Chandler.

  6. I find the caveats posted in here quite weird. This film is an absolute masterpiece — all the more remarkable in that it was made by a hunted, and now home-emprisoned, man.

    Christa Fuller (who has been a friend of Polanski’s from WAY back in the day) has been in touch with him and tells me his spirits are good and he’s been quite gratified by the reception the film has been given. She also said how enraged she was by the whole phony rape charge in that “he was SET UP!” and everyone in Hollywood knows it. The girl was not only not a virgin she was being offered up by her mother like a plate of canapes. “SHE should be the one in jail!” Christa says — and I agree. The mother currently resides in Hawaii and works in real estate. Not bad for a failed movie who hoped her little darling would succedd where she didn’t.

    Parents pimping out their kids is an old story in Tinseltown. The entire Michal Jackson affair was about parental pimping for a very well-known serial pedophile to whom everyone turned a blind eye because he made the industry big bucks.

    Polanski (by no means anything like a serial pedophile) made money too. But the powers that be were deeply upset by Chinatown — specifically it’s ending which was, as everyone knows, written by Polanski not Towne. The Ghost Writer reworks this ending in a darkly amusing way. Chinatown‘s ending is of course more pointed. or to put it another way, yes the city fathers fuck their own daughters.

    Having survived the Warsaw ghetto (thats him crawling out of its walls in The Pianist) while his family went to the death camps, only to win worldwide success the love of a beautiful woman, and the deathof said woman and seversal of his friends at the hands of the Manson gang Polanski’s life is decidedly unique. His view of the world and the way it works is apparent from the ending of another of his masterpieces The Fearless Vampire Killers.

  7. I’ve been a Olivia Williams fan for the last couple of years, as she was one of the highlights of Joss Whedon’s DOLLHOUSE. It’s great that she’s finally getting good roles in movies as well.

  8. Yes, I hope she gets a bunch more juicy roles after this. It was her performance as Agatha Christie for the BBC that convinced me she could be more than appealing and convincing: she had a nice witchy thing going on in some scenes.

    As always, Simon’s criticisms are very interesting, but I don’t know how many of them affected my enjoyment of the film. The horrible bunker of a beach house is a bit like Steve Martin’s place in real life so it didn’t seem unrealistic. Should it have been nicer, though? I didn’t feel it was a problem. The characters are meant to be besieged by the media and protestors, hiding out. They’re not really living the good life.

    The scene with the hotel wench is great!

    The other explanation of Polanski’s current difficulties is the documentary which reopened interest in the case. We don’t have to assume US govt interest in Polanski, when California judicial interest is enough to explain it all. Of course, clearly many people DO care about Polanski’s crime — read the incandescent postings in reply to anyone who defends him — but whether in the world of law and politics that’s enough to actually make anybody take action is another matter.

    I like Bitter Moon a lot, and I think it improves on second or third viewing, expecially if you view it as a very sick comedy: maybe Polanski’s best “light” film (apart from his very funny Cannes anniversary short).

  9. The documentary Roman Polanski” Wanted and Desired is quite good. It tells almost the whole story.

  10. Anne, yes, great article. One of Polanski’s nicest POV-effect shots is when he follows an actor, quite closely, from behind. It’s scary and uncomfortable because you have lots of menacing offscreen space moving around the sides, and a big blind spot in the middle where the actor’s head blocks your view of where you’re going. Discomfiting!

  11. I didn’t think the set was unrealisitic by any means, nor inappropriate. I just didn’t think “living nightmare” was a particularly interesting choice of tone for material so happily pulpy. Since there’s no ambiguity about the Ghost’s predicament there’s just no tension, for me.
    And I understand this is a very sensitive topic, David E, so I’m sorry for splitting hairs but Roman Polanski is indeed “self”-imprisoned. Nobody “turned a blind eye” to Michael Jackson. He stood trial. If Roman did the same this would be over.

  12. He’s not “self” imprisoned. The Swiss have ordered him to stay in his home and his every move is being monitored.

    Michael Jackson would have been tired –and likely convicted — earlier. But he paid off the parents. Evan Chandler was a celebrity dentist with Hollywiid aspirations. He sold a script to Mel Brooks who turned it into Robin Hood: Men in Tights. His wife met Jacko “by chance.” As they were divored it as the perfect set-up. Chandler started lobbying Jacko to buy his scripts. Jacko insisted that Jodie sleep over. As no sale was forthcoming and Jacko had lost interest in Jordie, Chandler went to the cops. it was all going to blow-up — and then Chandler coughed up the dough.

    Or as Roddy McDowell remarked at the time “And to think none of this would have happened if that little boy hadn’t started growing pubic hair.”

    Chandler suicided-out about two years ago. Jordie digs ditches.

    The trial that actually went forth was a disasteras the mother was a wack-job whose desire for money and fame was screaminglyt obvious. Plus Jacko came to court in his jammies looking more pathetic than usual.

    They Are All Equal Now.

  13. Jacko = The Phantom of the Opera — deranged musician and recluse, forming obsessive and socially unacceptable relationships. Sometimes wears mask. And with chalk-white skin and no nose.

    There’s a much darker satire than Phantom of the Paradise waiting to be written (and banned).

  14. And PIRATES featured Damien Thomas (Count Karnstein in Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL).

  15. Good one!

    I seem to recall Polanski saying he’d never watched many vampire films, which might account partly for the authentic folk tale vibe of Fearless VK, but still doesn’t entirely ring true.

    I think Kubrick’s connections with Hammer are also interesting, not just with his casting Andre Morrell and Patrick Magee, but the quotations in Lolita and Clockwork Orange, and the whole feel of the EWS orgy…

  16. STAR WARS cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shot for Kubrick and Polanski (as well as Lester and Hitchcock) but also had a little-known Hammer to his credit: Val Guest’s THE FULL TREATMENT (1960).

    On his NOSFERATU DVD commentary, Werner Herzog denied having seen practically any non-Murnau vampire films.

    Jack Taylor frolicked with Lina Romay in FEMALE VAMPIRE before cropping up in THE NINTH GATE.

  17. rosemurasaki Says:

    Olivia Williams has long been the saving grace of many a crappy British film such as Dead Babies or Born Romantic. She pulls off difficult, mostly reacting roles in Rushmore and The Sixth Sense (I think of someone like Uma Thurman in those roles and shudder) and was terrific in David Twohy’s spooky little haunted submarine movie, Below. Glad she’s finally getting some recognition.

  18. Polanski is clearly OBSESSED with cheap horror movies!

    I seem to remember reading that Kristin Scott-Thomas was in the frame for Olivia W role, which makes sense based on Bitter Moon, but turned it down. And Hugh Grant was offered the Blair/Lang role, which would have made a nice bookend to his PM in Love, Actually. But I’m very glad the roles went to the more substantial Williams and Brosnan. And as for Nic Cage in the Ewan McG role… we got very lucky that he got cold feet.

  19. Nic Cage is GHOST WRITER: The writer whose head is on fire and rides a motorcycle!

    “How’d the manuscript get burned? How’d it get burned? How’d it get burned?”

  20. The real surprise is Kim Cattrell. She’s fucking BRILLIANT in the part. I suspect Polanski must have known her from somewhere, for nothing in her previous credits suggests she’d be capable of such a subtle elegant performance.

  21. I hardly recognized Kim Cattrell at first. In retrospect, she possesses a kind of trashiness, that you would figure Polanski would work well with.

    I thought that her character was going to have a more substantial part in the narrative. Although the affair with Lang was spelled out, it didn’t seem to carry any weight. She was just window dressing, which I guess was the point.

    All the other leads played it a bit straight, compared with her.

  22. I thought her part was just right. She’s there to balance Olivia Williams’ Cherie Blair/Ice Queen.

  23. Cattrall’s actually quite versatile — in her long and spotty career (which more or less begins with her being insulted by Otto Preminger) she’s used quite a few different styles of acting. This can present its own problems: if you can play a part 100 different ways, you need good judgement to elminate the 999 that are wrong.

    Here, I just think her accent takes over, so everything becomes equally stylised and alien, so I didn’t think she contrasted with OW’s iciness, just with her naturalism. And everybody else’s naturalism. Wouldn’t be bad if everyone else was in a similar register.

    Maybe Polanski saw her with Rutger Hauer in Split Second, now we’ve established he likes cheap horror films.

  24. rosemurasaki Says:

    Cattrall was in a lot of genre pics early in her career – Police Academy, Mannequin, Big Trouble in Little China, Return of the Musketeers, Masquerade etc – so Polanski could have picked up on her in any of those. I know I did – by the time she started appearing in Sex and the City I was saying Oh right, it’s HER.

    The one time I interviewed him, in the mid 1990s, we were comparing notes about the films we’d seen or were going to see in Paris. He’d just seen Quiz Show, and I got the impression he went to see just about everything that came out.

    I remember also I showed him two nice little illustrated movie books I’d just bought – one about Bande à part, the other on Night of the Hunter. The Godard he dismissed instantly, but pounced on the Laughton as thought it was something precious. It struck me later as being a bit like a cinephile version of that test at the start of the Japanese Babycart films, where Tomisaburo Wakayama presents his kid with a ball and a sword, and waits to see which of the objects he’ll crawl towards.

  25. david wingrove Says:

    Normally I’m a huge fan of Kim Cattrall. She was the one woman on SEX AND THE CITY who could really act, and she even comes from my part of the world – Vancouver Island.

    However, I think she’s disastrous in THE GHOST. Her warmth and spontaneity are totally out of key with the frigid zombies who haunt 10 Downing Street under New Labour. As for her accent, it veers all over the Mid Atlantic without ever once finding port. There were moments when I wished the movie had been dubbed in Italian. Woeful!

  26. Just have to say, love this: “…McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much…”

  27. There was one other scene that stood out for me, which was betwween McGregor and Wikinson in Emmett’s study. The study itself, with its paneling, and federal furniture, had a kind of worn academic atmosphere of old boys clubs and whisky and cigars; that suggested a kind of beaten down- ness and violence.
    There was one lingering shot of Emmett’s wife, seen through the kitchen doorway, as she’s about thto call the police. Its like an incidential scene in the background of a Dutch Genre painting, but quite insane.

  28. Beautiful, Tom! Doorways are as important in Polanski as in Vermeer, perhaps because, as Anne points out, he chooses such a subjective focus. If we’re in one room and the character in another, we must observe them through the doorframe. Hence the legendary shot in Rosemary’s Baby, nominally showing Ruth Gordon on the phone, but actually hiding her face and the phone. Resulting in the audience craning their necks to try and see round the door.

    Cattrall didn’t strike me as genuinely warm, so I wasn’t bothered so much by her manner. But she didn’t seem like a real person from that world.

    I love the idea of dangling Godard and Laughton baubles before Polanski. He’s always seemed rather dismissive of anything too arthouse… and that world has often dismissed him in turn.

  29. Well if you want to talk about “that world” it’s full of TRULY bizarre people. Former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (currenlty the hubster of NBC meat puppet Andrea Mitchell) began his career as one of Ayn Rand’s boytoys.

    Atlas Barfed !

  30. Apparently the Eli Wallach character in the book is a thinly-veiled Robert McNamara. I think it was probably wise to make him just a regular local codger.

  31. david wingrove Says:

    The scary thing is that Robert Mcnamara (a notorious mass murderer and war-monger in the 60s) now passes as some sort of moderate liberal in comparison with George W and his cronies.

    Wallach does indeed look a bit like him!

  32. The character name McAra, the slain man whose death actuates the plot, is McNamara with the “Nam” removed!

  33. david wingrove Says:

    On the basis of the Errol Morris documentary THE FOG OF WAR, I suspect that McNamara would very much like to remove ‘Nam’ from his name. Not that it’s possible YET to go back and totally rewrite history…

    I have one friend whose grandfather was a good pal of McNamara’s. He was some sort of ‘assistant dictator’ in Cuba before the 1959 revolution.

  34. McNamara has quite a chummy relationship with Morris now, it seems: having successfully used him as what the CIA call a “useful idiot” in the documentary (someone who’s working for the secret state without realising it). Morris, a bright guy, has somehow become a servant of the Republican cause without even noticing!

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