Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Historically not all of Roman Polanski’s choices have been good ones (and I’m not just talking about Pirates). Say what you want about the director’s personal life, the man knows how to tell a story and how to build and hold dramatic tension without relying on unnecessarily cheap plot twists.

Adapted from the Robert Harris novel The Ghost, The Ghost Writer begins with the death of a ghost writer working on former British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) autobiography.

Into the fray steps the new Ghost (Ewan McGregor), never referred to by name, who soon has second thoughts about taking the job. Our new writer’s job is made more complicated by his subject being charged publicly with war crimes, a sneaking suspicion of other dark secrets hidden in the shadows, a media frenzy, and a growing paranoia of his over his safety.

Although the film presents us with everything we need to solve the mystery, when it’s revealed there’s no disappointment. On the contrary, the story plays out (unlike many Hollywood films) not to shock or surprise the audience, but only to complete a compelling tale.

Even as the film gives us many of the pieces to the puzzle, it keeps just enough in reserve to allow for several possible outcomes. And the one chosen is just right. Polanski is a master in giving the us not always the ending we expect, or even want, but he almost always delivers the ending the film deserves. And Ghost Writer is no exception.

To help keep us in suspense Polanski gives us a character that, though smart, is constantly making bad decisions. This central flaw allows our Ghost to repeatedly put himself in situations where a more prudent soul would fear to tread.

McGregor is well-cast in role that allows him to play equal parts curious and paranoid. Brosnan is a smart choice for the Tony Blair-like Lang, and the supporting cast includes strong performances from both Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson. I’ve also got to give a little love to both Timothy Hutton and an almost unrecognizable James Belushi for their small roles in the film.

The Ghost Writer may be more Frantic than Chinatown, but it’s still a damn good time at the movies. Aside from the possible exceptions of few Oscar favorites still playing in theaters, you’ll have to look long and hard to find a better time at the movies this time of year.

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