Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

The Man Who Saw Too Much
(The Ghost Writer, 3/15/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

The Ghost Writer is a timely reminder that Roman Polanski isn't just the man at the center of a bi-continental legal circus surrounding a thirty year-old statutory rape charge—he's still one of the most gifted filmmakers we have. Love him or loathe him, the director of Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess, and other near-classics cannot be ignored. He's the real heir to the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, except that his work is more inspired, kinkier, and painted on a much broader thematic canvas.
      Hitch would have been pleased with The Ghost Writer, a resurrection of the classic "man who knew too much" thriller that smolders with intelligence, style, and wicked humor. Ewan MacGregor, as the character known only as "The Ghost", is a young, ostensibly apolitical writer who accepts an offer to write the memoirs of a retired British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). Though he seems proud to know nothing about his subject, he soon undergoes an education when the PM is put up on war crimes charges for the rendition and murder of terrorism suspects in a secret CIA prison.
      As in other Polanski creepfests, the tension here is not trumped up, Bourne-style, by opening up the drama to a scope commensurate with the stakes. Most of the proceedings unfold in a single beach house, among the PM's increasingly frantic allies, including his wife (Olivia Wiliams) and his assistant/mistress (Kim Cattrall). As in The Tenant, The Pianist and elsewhere, Polanski deliberately limits our view—sometimes literally to a single window—and in so doing creates a subtly threatening atmosphere that makes us dread what's beyond the frame as much as what's in it.
      As the Ghost, Ewan MacGregor shows some welcome flashes of his old Trainspotting mischievousness. Williams, an actress who deserves to be seen more, is also effective as a woman who is patently much more than "the wife." Best of all, in a small way, is Pierce Brosnan. As the morally ambivalent ex-Prime Minister, he might have been left to play the obvious heavy, the unctuous, good-looking politician in his private jet, keen to stay above the wreckage of his compromises. In Polanski's world, though, he's nothing but the tip of corruption's iceberg, and not the most worst by a long shot.
      What remains fascinating about Polanski is that his personal brushes with demons have not imbued his work with the barest whiff of victimhood. His childhood during the Holocaust, his emergence in Communist Poland, the murder of his wife by the Manson gang, and his recent international legal troubles have, if anything, made him at ease with all the varieties of evil, as if he'd earned a back-stage pass in Hell. (See Marina Zenovich's 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired for the full story on his singular journey.) For some, there'll always be the suspicion that Polanski the victim is a necessary consequence of Polanski the predator—that trouble follows him because he is trouble. I prefer to think that, for some hardy souls at least, the ultimate defiance of evil isn't bland sainthood, but the choice to stay maddeningly, defiantly, humanly ambivalent.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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