There are a couple of suspense films out right now, both set on New England islands. New England Noir, if you will. You have Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (which is sitting atop the box office two weeks running), and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Both are said to be in the vein of that great director Alfred Hitchcock, and both are quite good.
For my tastes, though, Shutter Island (Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Emily Mortimer), is a bit too on the nose somehow, and as one would suspect, Marty’s efforts (may I call him Marty?) are more graphic. Shutter Island is set inside an insane asylum which isn't exactly the typical location of a Hitchcock film, though he did enjoy prodding the breadth and depths of madness with his sharp cinematic stick seemingly at will. Though I enjoyed the by-the-numbers Shutter Island, Ghost Writer, for my money, is the better bet if you're up for seeing a good suspense/whodunnit feature this weekend.
Ghost Writer is a taut political thriller to be sure, with some ripe filmmaking Freudian projections that anyone with a mere passing knowledge of what has been in the news regarding director Roman Polanski, former British prime minister Tony Blair, and several of those in Bush 43's administration will recognize.
The film opens with Ewan McGregor brought in to replace his predeceased predecessor whose body has washed ashore like some Nicholas Sparks message in a bottle. McGregor’s “Ghost” in effect becomes the ghost of the PM’s first ghost writer (just in case, a ghost writer is the real writer behind the scenes of many political first-person narratives). But, will he himself survive his new gig?
The recently retired prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) finds himself embroiled in a realpolitik showdown as The Hague begins investigating Blair, er, Lang, for allegedly ordering the water boarding of terrorists causing one of their deaths. As a result of this newly discovered political hot potato, an international commission investigation begins, in effect stranding the PM in the States. He cannot return to his country without facing a potential trial and conviction for “war crimes” (*much like an alleged rapist of drunken 13 yr-olds in Jack Nicholson’s hot tub – asterisks can be a nasty lot). He and his wife and their entourage of apparatchiks are holed-up in a post-modern Cape Cod manse owned by Lang's publisher, conveniently situated for New England Noir along a foreboding and eternally windswept Massachusetts strand of beach. The film is a moody piece throughout, with solid acting that keeps you guessing who could be behind the recent and suspicious death of the prime minister's ghost writer.
Hyper-attentive press and their helicopters, protesters animated with a rage against the machine hatred of the PM, mysterious men in shadows who are no doubt ill-intentioned, and the pressure on McGregor's character (who is simply credited as “The Ghost” at film’s end) to finish the tome within a month by his publisher, all drive the pacing of Ghost Writer. Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City), Olivia Williams (Rushmore) are the women in PM Adam Lang’s life. Kim is his aide-de-camp (and mistress), and Ms. Williams is the icy wife Ruth (Hillary Clintonesque), who is the real brains and political passion behind Lang’s conservative years at No. 10 Downing. Tom Wilkinson does a solid turn here as well as a former acquaintance from Oxford undergrad years and current Harvard professor.
The women in Ghost Writer are all strong. And, that’s perhaps Polanski’s greatest homage to the rotund director, Lord Alfred. Hitchcock routinely populated his films with strong women, including loyal housekeepers who have rung a German neck or two in their day (To Catch a Thief), or fired shots from a 9mm handgun at good guy trespassers (North by Northwest). Likewise, the Lang’s have a stout and steely housekeeper who is happy to make a sandwich or change the sheets, but never without a sideways glance, like a viper would its prey before a rapid strike of the Carotid artery. Ruth Lang is equally strong, and as a pragmatist, understands the value of political expediency. She hates the presence of Lang’s mistress, but allows it because her husband needs and values her. Which leads me to our protagonist; would that he were as strong (and smart) as the women of Ghost Writer. McGregor's character is obviously a fairly smart guy, but like in any good Hitchcock film, he's too trusting. We see in "the ghost" a man similar to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much or Jimmy again in Rear Window. He's smart enough to figure and decipher the mystery before him (and us) as he goes, but ask yourself, Dear Reader, if you see this fine film, would you make the same choices McGregor's Ghost does. I think not.
The layers of this film are many, and in the very beginning of the film when McGregor’s character is hired by the publisher, he and his editor walk to the London street below. He doesn’t know what it is, but there is something "not quite right," says the editor putting lean finger upon pensive lips as McGregor runs into the street hailing a cab. The ending of The Ghost Writer is shot exactly from this same spot, confirming our highly skilled book editor’s innate sense of wrongness with what little he’s been given to read. In life, as in this film, we often come full circle, our political and personal realities come back to face us like a wayward book flap that won't keep our place. Polanski now knows this all too well, and after a day or two of thinking on this fine film, I have seen that the director that touched me so deeply with Chinatown, is once again at the top of his directing game.