Ewan McGregor has been in search of a good role for 7 years. He was all sorts of brilliant in Big Fish and Down With Love in 2003 and equally satisfying in 2001’s Moulin Rouge. Yet, there’s that distinct sense that his onscreen joviality makes him an easy person to overlook when people are thinking about “good” actors. It makes sense, in that bitterly ironic way, that he gets the task of playing a ghost writer in Roman Polanski’s latest. A ghost writer, deprecatingly referred to as a “ghost” is a man who must be heard (intermittently) but never seen, one of those people who writes but is never credited. He’s given the task of ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang, a recent prime minister of Britain. It’s only natural that Lang’s past is strewn with secrets and lies especially when his previous ghost-writer was found washed up on the shore of the island he’s currently inhabiting somewhere in the US.
The Ghost Writer puzzled me almost from that onset. Not that it was difficult to understand, it’s consistently comprehensible; but Polanski’s tone seemed immediately too cavalier even supercilious at times as if he was framing a witty social comedy and not a political thriller....a feeling that is only exacerbated when the title card appears so sinisterly at the film’s end and Alexandre Desplat's mocking (and brilliant) score keeps playing. It’s all very slick. I’m not certain that the supposed disparity in tone and form is an accurate judgement of the movie, because the more of I think of it in retrospect I think that perhaps The Ghost Writer is just a smartly executed fantasy. Something I find interesting about the film is that despite the excess of information available, Polanski is never explicit in stressing the potential theme of illusion and reality, the novel is about a ghost of a man after all. It’s probably part of his larger intent to give the audience nothing readymade, but the decision still seems odd.
The Ghost Writer is the type of film that might be even more fulfilling the second time around (even though I’m not especially anxious to see it again, in its entirety). Polanski’s direction is smooth, so smooth that I’m often moved to distrust what he shows us. Like any good mystery, though, there’s a distinct sense of fluidity as the film glides to its closing without the slightest narrative glitches. Of course, that’s a bit of a problem in itself – like that sickening sensation one gets after an especially syrupy drink. Not that it is “treacly”, per se, but Polanski is so tidy that sometimes you wish that he’d be a little less meticulous in the execution and the wrap-up. Still, it’s this selfsame fluidity that makes the performances of the main quarter all the more outstanding. Me (who grew up with a sister devoted to Sex & the City) didn’t recognise Kim Cattrall * until some time into the film’s second act. She’s altogether fascinating, donning a British accent that I can’t help but applaud. Match that against the cold contours of Olivia Williams scrupulously effected politicians’ wife. Even when her character is at her lowest she still manages to exude the cold veneer of her character. Of course, McGregor is every bit as subtle as he needs be, I’ll admit that Brosnan strikes as a bit too garish to do the role full justice, though it’s not as exasperating as I anticipated.
The Ghost Writer does come off as a bit too lithe on its feet, even the potentially shocking end which is less jarring than just vague. But, it works – sometimes too smoothly, but I’m splitting hairs. It’s a good one.
* For the life of me I cannot account for not immediately recognising Cattrall, it's not as if she looks particularly different (unless you count how youthful she comes off.)