The first thirty minutes or so of Roman Polanski’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ contains some of the most assured, most precise, most exciting filmmaking that I’ve seen all year. We are clearly in the hands of a master here, as Polanski sets up a kind of culmination of all of his thematic concerns in a seemingly effortless manner (that this may in fact possibly be his final film is an unfortunate coincidence). The dialogue free opening is a marvel: a large ferry looms into view, as we cut to an interior shot of the ship. Cars begin exiting, slowly inching around a parked, unmoving vehicle. Attendants begin directing traffic and peering inside the vehicle. Cut to an empty ship, the SUV still motionless. A tow truck removes it, while investigators peer through the windshield and search the undercarriage for bombs (three minutes in, and already a reminder that we live in a post 9/11, post Iraq invasion world). Cut to a limp body washed up on a beach, motionless as waves crash around it: an evocative use of emptiness to suggest death, an overwhelming sense that there is an absence.
We are quickly introduced to Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer (never named in the film, and referred to only as ‘The Ghost’ in the film’s credits) and his agent in a restaurant. As they converse, Polanski refrains from the insufferable ping-ponging effect of shot-counter shot; instead, he lines people up behind his speakers, these figures creating a sharp straight line leading into the background of the shot. A minor detail, perhaps, but consider the effort in assembling these extras, directing them, and choreographing continuous action in the visible background: all of this instead of simply pushing the camera in for tight close-ups of faces.
Polanski moves immediately from the lunch scene to McGregor entering a publisher’s headquarters for an interview (the set design of the building’s foray, all glass and intersecting planes, would delight Assayas). Entering a room with a clearly displeased book editor, Polanski does several things very quickly: the screen is black as the shot begins, the camera placed squarely on McGregor’s back. As he walks away from the camera, light enters the frame, as well as a figure. Without cutting, the camera momentarily pushes in on this new character, before promptly stuttering to the right, introducing another new character. Again, without cutting, the camera pans right once more to reveal a third figure, this one recognizable as McGregor’s agent from the previous scene. It’s a brief sequence, but a highly suggestive one. Polanski has made several things clear with his mise en scene – this world purports to clarity and transparency, yet it is an illusion (the irate editor for one, also the fact that the actual meeting takes place not in the crystal clear world of panes of glass, but behind closed doors, in a windowless room). The precision of the framing is equally suggestive – more than a fascinating bit of manipulating offscreen space, it implies a fundamental instability. Within a certain confined (even claustrophobic) space, the frame can always fluctuate to reveal something new and unexpected (a powerful visual metaphor for the narrative mechanics of a thriller).
McGregor is assigned to begin ghost writing a political memoir for ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly veiled stand in for Tony Blair, embodied with an admirable mixture of bombastic self-awareness and aw-shucks-why-me ignorance by a very game Pierce Brosnan). McGregor travels to the politician’s private island sanctum under the auspices of interviewing Lang, only to become gradually immersed in, then enveloped by, and ultimately consumed in a vague conspiracy involving all sorts of pseudo-Haliburton/Middle East/extraordinary rendition escapades. The notion of private corporations, in conjunction with the US Government, manipulating world events is nothing particularly new. Again, what is fascinating is how Polanski marshals the pat topicality of the screenplay into a compendium of his own personal obsessions. Lang’s island stronghold is one of the great sets of recent cinema – a modernist fortress of sorts (complete with its own media/communications center), it represents a key duality, as well as a particularly dark Polanski joke. Each room of the house is equal parts wall and window. The visual dichotomy is clear: encased, McGregor is allowed glimpses into the outside world (Polanski makes great use of the symmetrical possibilities of the design, a solid gray filling half of the frame while the other half reveals an expansive view of the beach/ocean), but only glimpses: the island is gray, gloomy, foreboding and largely off limits. Polanski’s joke (one that sticks in the throat) is simply this – the vision of a world beyond the walls reveals only another prison, be it one that is larger than his current cell. Ultimately, McGregor’s Ghost is entrapped by a series of enclosing environs, and while some might be larger than others, they lead, inexorably, to the same fate.
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McGregor’s ‘Ghost’ is another in a long line of passive Polanski protagonists. Even when they are investigating, and they almost always are, inevitably the Polanski hero stumbles across something bigger than himself - something that he thinks that he can control, yet ultimately proves far too grand to master. I’m thinking of Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, Depp’s Corso, Hugh Grant’s Nigel, Polanski himself as the hapless Tenant Trelkovsky, Adrien Brody’s Szpilman. Each character initiates, sometimes aggressively and usually against their better judgment, various mysteries and intrigues (even sometimes seemingly solving them, to a point), only to be crushed by the cruel vicissitudes of fate. The Pianist is particularly affecting in this light, as the context is neither supernatural nor a bit of existential ennui, but world historical events that crushed millions. Polanski’s origins have lead to a very specific, clearly defined world view. McGregor’s final destination in the grand, master narrative of political affairs is to remain nameless, his minor victory destined to be lost in a sea of powerful people manipulating events to their own liking.