Sunday, April 4, 2010

Squalor: The Ghost Writer

Earlier today, I had a big talk with my soon to graduate high-school little sister about expectations. We talked about how you can only expect people to believe in you so much, and that once that magic wears off, you have to be able to back up your work and efforts with a product that at least looks like you gave it your all, even if it sucks. That is my main problem with Roman Polanski's return to mainstream film making. While pretty and foreboding in all the right ways, it's hard to watch The Ghost Writer and not wonder if a lesser talent ghost wrote this screenplay in place of Polanski himself, as he seems not only distant, but uninterested in bringing forth a genuine story here, let alone a sleekly done film as per his usual.

Known only as "The Ghost," which is one of the nicer touches in the film, Ewan McGregor takes on any ghost writer's dream project: writing the memoirs for a controversial former Prime Minister of England (Pierce Brosnan) who is currently embroiled in a torture scandal and marital issues at home. As he unravels more about the Prime Minister's past, "The Ghost" begins to discover the seedy and alarming double dealing that may or may not have led to the previous ghost writer's untimely death, exposing an entire underbelly of global intrigue.

Polanski, like Martin Scorcese, is a modern film master who despite (or as a result of) his tragic past, can usually make any project feel effortless and interesting, a perfection in the very least of techniques including cinematography, direction, and editing. But The Ghost Writer feels careless and unnecessarily melodramatic in all the worst ways, a sloppy homage to the noir/Hitchcock vibe that he's normally so adept at capturing. Polanski is undoubtedly the master of atmosphere and has proven his ability on many occasions (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Ninth Gate), as if with a simple flick of his wrist the camera subtlety creates tension and fear. But instead of relying on the beauty of his cinematography, art production (and it is absolutely stunning here), and the subtle timing of a correctly placed score, every moment of The Ghost Writer is drowned by the usually fabulous Alexandre Desplat's music, screaming at the audience "LOOK! THIS IS INTENSE! CAN'T YOU SEE! IT'S SO TENSE! WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN! SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN!"

But nothing really happens. I could excuse all this fuss and hullaballo if Polanski had managed to really build up any sort of tension. The film takes far too long to get into the swing of the story, and once all is revealed, the grand revelation feels cheap, predictable, and gimmicky. With such a pacing problem, the viewer begins to lose interest in the characters despite the actors better intentions, the high caliber of McGregor and Olivia Williams' performances the only thing standing in the way of total disaster. By the end of this film I was way more concerned about finding out where they filmed it (the Baltic Sea stands in for East Coast, USA), instead of wondering about the story's outcome or about the whereabouts of any of the characters. Polanski feels as withdrawn and icy here as the waters framed in the windows of the Prime Minister's secluded, modern beach front home, but for once, it doesn't do the film any favors. 

Sometimes the melodrama and the attempt at building old school Hitchcockian tension can work (it certainly did in Scorcese's Shutter Island, and almost every other Polanski film, and it's utter magic when it does). But if you're going to pull it off, you have to commit, and you have to try to at least make the solid film that is expected from you. If only Polanski's tangled story had made it out through his tangled editing. 

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