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Film Review

The Ghost Writer

Should we judge artists only by their work, or do we also need to look at their lives as well? It's a difficult question. Some great artists have done repugnant things: Wagner, Degas, Eliot, Pound, and many more, all with their obsessive anti-Semitism; Leni Riefenstahl, unapologetic to the day she died about her films glorifying fascism; Norman Mailer, who stabbed and nearly killed one of his wives, then was instrumental in obtaining the release of a man jailed for murder, who promptly killed another man shortly after being released; and Frank LLoyd Wright, who abandoned his first family. Sadly, the list is long. It isn't enough to dismiss their behavior with "they were only human". These were highly intelligent people who committed, condoned, or abetted terrible things, yet produced great art. We should continue to enjoy their art, but remain mindful of their crimes. Roman Polanski, a gifted director who has produced masterpieces (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist) and many merely excellent films (nearly 30 total), is perhaps one of those artists. His recent attempts to avoid extradition to California to be sentenced for a serious sex crime on a minor in 1977, have been much in the news recently. His life itself, in some ways, has seemed cursed. His mother was murdered at Auschwitz, and Polanski himself escaped from the Krakow ghetto. His second wife, Sharon Tate, then pregnant, was murdered, along with three other friends, by the Manson Gang. Because of the sex crime conviction, he had been living in Europe for many years. And now, 77 years old, he has produced The Ghost Writer, in the tradition of Chinatown. It is a gem of a film, a roman a clef, and noirish thriller set on an island, about war crimes and political intrigue, understated, yet powerful. It could have easily been titled Secrets and Lies, had that title not been preempted. No one will fall asleep watching this film.

The Ghost Writer begins with the dramatic shot of a huge ferry, approaching the slip in a heavy rain, its enormous mouth opening, and finally cars beginning to drive off. One doesn't move, and when all the others have left, the crew discovers that this car is locked, with no one inside. Then the camera jumps to a beach scene, where a body is seen, rolling in the surf. We soon discover that the body is that of a writer who was helping a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan), write his memoirs. Another writer (played by Ewan McGregor), who remains nameless throughout the film, is hired to replace the first ghost writer. Despite protests from the writer that he has no knowledge of politics, his agent persuades him to take the job because the publisher will pay him $250,000 to complete the book within a month. The writer leaves the publisher's office, and something happens on the street that signals that all is not well. Nevertheless he flies to Lang's house on Martha's Vineyard (presumeably). Lang has been staying at a stunning house on the island since resigning as PM. The new writer discovers that that the setting, although gorgeous, is by no means edenic. Lang's wife, Ruth (played by Olivia William), suspects that Lang is having an affair with his secretary (played by Kim Cattrail), and is furious. Ruth had long been Lang's principal advisor, and finds herself being edged out. Further, just as the new writer arrives and begins to settle in, the news breaks that Lang may be indicted by a war crimes panel for helping in a rendition of terror suspects, one of whom died during captivity. By now the new writer wants out, but his agent again persuades him to stick it out. The writer begins to revise the nearly complete memoir, discovering that "all the words are there, only the order is completely wrong". The ghost writer is staying at a local inn, but upon returning discovers that someone has been in his room and gone through his papers. Lang's wife insists that he stay in their house, in the quarters where the first writer had stayed. The dead writer's clothing is still there, which upsets the new writer, who begins to pack them away. In the process he makes a discovery, which leads him down a new path, literally and figuratively. Lang seems clearly to be modeled after Tony Blair, famously described as Bush's poodle. Other allusions and company names will jump out also. I won't reveal more, except to say that there is much more, ominous and complicated, with some very surprising discoveries.

Polanski is clearly a talented director, and it shows here. The story is compelling, the tension constant, with attention to details and first rate cinematography. The film is filled with great shooting and strong scenes. Acting is uniformly excellent with very crisp dialog, but some of the casting seemed strange. Why cast an American actress, Kim Cattrail (from Sex in the City), for an English character? Are there no good middle-aged English actresses? And why use Tom Wilkinson, a talented English actor, as an American professor? That seemed the only misstep. There is a wonderful cameo by Eli Wallach, playing an old islander. The film's score is very well done, consisting of long arpeggios that ratchet up the tension. This is adult entertainment at its finest, with a sophistication and craft that any Hollywood director would envy. Just opened at both the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, and cries out to be seen on the big screen.

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