Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER. Even better than The Pianist

Roman Polanski’s work is probably his best film since the Oscar-nominated Tess.

Edward Kelley

7 September 2023

Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER Even better than The Pianist

Roman Polanski is not a very prolific director. In the last decade, he has directed only a handful of feature films; it’s similar to the previous decade. The peak of his directorial activity was in the 1960s and 1970s, and during that time, he achieved his greatest artistic successes, which propelled him into the pantheon of the greatest film creators. His infrequently released feature films are, therefore, eagerly awaited. In the case of The Ghost Writer, the atmosphere was further heated by Polanski’s  arrest, related to a sexual scandal from over thirty years ago, which resulted in part of the film’s post-production and editing being directed by Polanski first from prison and then from house arrest in Gstaad. This also became the basis for speculation about the potential quality of the material he had prepared. Unjustly, as it turned out because Roman Polanski’s work is probably his best film since the Oscar-nominated Tess. No, it’s not a mistake – in my opinion, The Ghost Writer is even better than the Oscar-winning The Pianist.

the ghost writer pierce brosnan olivia williams kim cattrall

A ghostwriter is a person hired to write literary or journalistic works, speeches, or other texts that are putatively credited to another person as the author. (Source)

The Ghost

The Ghost Writer is a political thriller based on Robert Harris’s bestselling novel, The Ghost. Knowing both the novel and its adaptation, it’s hard to avoid comparisons between the two, but in this case, seekers of discrepancies will be sorely disappointed – the screenplay was co-authored by Harris himself, alongside the director, and apart from removing a few peripheral, less significant subplots, the film remains surprisingly faithful to the literary original. This, in fact, works in its favor because the novel is almost a ready-made screenplay, which in the hands of such a director could (and did) turn into a real gem.

It’s the story of a ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor), hired after the death of his predecessor to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Things start to get complicated when Adam Lang is publicly accused of war crimes, and to make matters worse, it turns out that the death of the previous ghostwriter may not have been entirely accidental.

the ghost writer ewan macgregor

The Ghost Writer ‘s characters

Although the entire plot of the film is focused on discovering the truth, which we approach step by step, our ghostwriter is not a classic seeker – he is not the kind of person whose goal is to get to the heart of the matter, a crusader on an eternal crusade for the truth. He is rather a skilled craftsman with no major ambitions, an everyman reluctantly drawn into the reality somewhat against his will – he takes each step on the path to the truth rather unwillingly, compelled by the situation. This places him in the Hitchcockian tradition of ordinary people ending up in circumstances that overwhelm them, but it also fits perfectly with Polanski’s way of telling stories about characters (think Frantic, Chinatown, or The Tenant).

Although the The Ghost Writer remains the main character, and we focus most of our attention on his actions, the emotional core of the film is the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lang. Their marriage represents a political whole, a kind of marriage of convenience, in which he plays the role of a charismatic leader, an excellent speaker who handles the media brilliantly and breaks down barriers between people, while she, unfit and explosive, always in the background, is, in fact, the political brain of her husband and his chief strategist – a person without whom Adam’s career would be impossible. Commentators (primarily of the novel) sought analogies to this political couple in the marriage of the Blairs, and it’s easy to see that Polanski deepens this connection by dropping clues that clearly lead to the conclusion that we are talking about a former British Prime Minister. It’s also hard not to see similarities in the situation in which the director found himself, restricted in his travels to countries without an extradition agreement with the United States, to the accused of war crimes Adam Lang, ironically forced to stay on U.S. soil.

the ghost writer pierce brosnan ewan macgregor

Polanski uses the interplay between these characters to build tension, which finds its resolution only in the finale. Moreover, the gradual increase in tension, the introduction of new puzzle pieces that contribute to the overall picture, is perhaps the film’s strongest aspect. The director precisely doses the clues for the audience, building an atmosphere of uncertainty and mounting threat. Polanski is not a director known for bombastic effects or particularly fast-paced narratives; he is more interested in characters than in action driving the plot forward. In this film, these characteristics of his style find perfect application – the action and character development are in perfect balance, leaving no doubt about the psychological plausibility of the characters’ decisions. This is not the only characteristic of the film that places it among typical Polanski atmospheres.

The first two acts of the film take place in an abandoned, off-season American East Coast resort. While the film doesn’t explicitly state it, we can assume it’s Martha’s Vineyard – an island that teems with tourists in the summer but becomes deserted after the season, leaving behind desolate, picturesque beaches and summer mansions exposed to the wind and storms. The action of the film takes place in one such mansion. Looking at Polanski’s filmography, it’s easy to see the analogy to his earlier works: an atmosphere of isolation, a mansion cut off from the world, limited mobility – we find much of The Ghost Writer reminiscent of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, or The Ninth Gate.

the ghost writer olivia williams

Classically Polanski

The characters of The Ghost Writer are also very characteristic of Polanski’s body of work: a classic emotional triangle to which an unwitting disruptor is added, becoming the catalyst for change. Polanski once again masterfully plays out the relationships between the characters, although this time there’s less of the psychological drama seen in films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, or Death and the Maiden. Nevertheless, the film’s most powerful scenes are still the face-to-face verbal clashes between the characters (to mention the excellent, emotionally charged and erotically tense dinner scene between Ruth Lang and the ghostwriter or the verbal showdown on the plane between McGregor’s and Brosnan’s characters). Until the very end, Polanski does not allow the viewer to discern to what extent the oppression of the main character is a result of his increasing psychosis related to the situation and tension, and to what extent it is dictated by actual circumstances. A curious fact is that the film never mentions the name of the character played by McGregor – he remains nameless throughout, a person without identity, further emphasizing the impression that he is only an anonymous, inconsequential pawn in a larger game, the deciphering of which may prove dangerous to him.

the ghost writer pierce brosnan olivia williams kim cattrall

Polanski relied on seasoned actors, and the entire cast performed more than adequately, although, except for one role, it’s hard to say that any of the performances are outstanding. Ewan McGregor, Kim Cattrall, and Pierce Brosnan are competent, although I feel that casting someone like Jeff Bridges or Kevin Spacey instead of the latter could have made this relatively small role a true gem. Only Olivia Williams, in the role of Ruth, stands out significantly above the other actors, creating the character of the embittered wife of the former prime minister with emotions that are clearly visible – an Oscar-worthy performance.

One cannot ignore the excellent soundtrack composed for the film by one of the most sought-after film composers of recent years, Alexandre Desplat. It’s an amalgamation of his best work from previous years – Desplat has created “listenable” music that not only comments on the events on the screen but also provides them with a characteristic musical counterpoint. I’m willing to bet that it will work just as well outside the screen.

the ghost writer olivia williams tom wilkinson

The Ghost Writer might not be on the level of Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown, but it remains a superbly directed thriller that not only does not underestimate the viewer’s intelligence but also allows them to equally enjoy the excellently conducted interactions between the characters and the well-crafted plot. It was executed “by the book,” in a classic style, which we experience less and less these days – no subliminal editing, no cameraman with ADHD permanently attached to the camera, which is a merit in itself given the current way films are often served to the audience. The director managed to maintain a perfect balance between entertainment value and intelligent content. In short, The Ghost Writer is Polanski’s first film in many years that proves he is in excellent form and as a creator, he has not yet said his last word.