27 February 2010

"The Ghost Writer" ... New England Noir

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.


Dumbwit Tellher said...

You had me @ Ewan. I am now so very intrigued that it's a must see on my growing list. Finally..finally saw 'Law Abiding Citizen', I'm so sadly far behind. I just may sneak into to take this in solo, I'm waiting for no one. Thank you for the reviews, I value your opinion JG. Hope personally & professionally all is well & great, especially those wonderful sons?!

All my best ~ deb

Laura said...

I love how you transcribe your thoughts into words FS and I love this avant garde movie review. Although I love movies I haven't felt too inspired lately to go and see one. A Single Man looks amazing! Great post...

Char said...

you had me at Hitchcock - i still adore his movies.

Julie@beingRUBY said...

You had me at movie! no.. only joking.. but your descriptive voice has me wanting to see both these movies... a very long list of movies and growing longer each day..

Caleb S. Garcia said...

Superb review sir...Love the Hitchcock homages, the man WAS film. To compare two of the top five is always great. A prof of mine mentioned Polanski's film "The Tenant" the other day, for its narrative structure.

Also I don't think Polanski is allegedly a rapist. I believe they caught him recently and found him guilty.

Barbara said...

Well, I stopped at Pierce Brosnan. Can't stand him. He and his wife were on Bora Bora (not kidding) at the same time we were. I am too polite to say anything more.

I will wait for these to hit Netflix. Couple others I want to see more.

Really stopped by to tell you I saw A Good Year last night and enjoyed it immensely. Also saw one called Grass Harp which is a Capote short story...wonderful cast. Perhaps too much of a chick flick for you?

FatScribe said...

DT -- everyone's good. glad you got to see your first movie in awhile!

Laura -- A Single Man was indeed good. Thx for stopping by!

Char -- Yeah, Hitch was the man. Just watched "Vertigo" the other night ... San Francisco is not a bad city to shoot in.

Julie -- put them in the queue for your NetFlix acct!

Hey Caleb --> good luck with your upcoming semester, bud. grad school next?

Barbara -- You are indeed too polite (but, I do want to read about that Bora Bora trip!). So glad you enjoyed "A Good Year" I'll take a look at Grass Harp and get back to you ...

lisa golightly said...

JG, You had me at your opening picture. What an office ! Two more movies to add to my list ! I agree with you and Barbara, "A Good Year" was a good one !


christian soldier said...

Since I hardly ever go to movies in a theater-(I don't like people kicking the back of my seat!) - I appreciate your 'heads up' on these two!


FatScribe said...

Ms. Gorightry -- yeah, that office is very nice. seems like a writer could get a lot done in there. My ex gave me a great book during grad school of famous writers and their desks. very cool book.

CS - Carol, you ARE clearly way too busy (which is a good thing), but I have a sneaky feeling you haven't been to a modern cinema recently. Their construction (at least here in LA) is very "stadium" where you have no obstructions in front of you, and the aisles are wide enough that those 4-yr-olds with their incessant kicking can't reach our chair backs! good times await, dear friend! - Jg.

Emm said...

I decided to poke about on your archives while politely awaiting your latest post. I thought Ghost Writer was okay but I really, really don't like Pierce Brosnan and that ruined it for me. Strange really, when you consider how much I adored Remington Steele.

I really enjoyed Shutter Island, possibly because I had absolutely the wrong idea of what to expect and what the film was about.

Both great films, certainly, but I enjoyed the latter more. I loved the psychoanalytic imagery too and it reminded me a lot of the massively underrated film The Cell.