At the Movies

Michael Wood

The car ferry looms towards the camera, head-on, lights glittering in the pouring rain. It’s a figure of menace, looks like a Transformer about to sprout arms and a face, but it’s just a way of getting from the mainland to the island. It lifts its moveable snout and the cars start to pour off. All except one, stationary, driverless. In the next shot we see a body washed up on a beach.

The film, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, looks gleaming and beautiful throughout – the cameraman is Pawel Edelman, who also shot Polanski’s The Pianist, as well as Taylor Hackford’s glossy biography of Ray Charles. This is important, because the movie is mostly about the way it looks. It’s meant to be a political thriller – based on Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost (the film has that title in the UK) – but it feels as if the writer went home halfway through, taking the story with him, and leaving the director and cinematographer to do what they could with the light and the setting. The most interesting protagonist is the ultra-modern house on what looks like Martha’s Vineyard, the place you get to if your car moves when the ferry docks, a luxury barracks built of sandy blocks and sheet glass, and a picture of wealth and power as modes of infinite discomfort. It belongs to a high-powered American publisher, and is inhabited when the film starts by a former British prime minister, locked away writing his memoirs. Or rather …

That corpse on the beach was a job opportunity. When alive it was the original ghost writer for the prime minister’s memoirs. Does anyone suspect foul play? Well yes, everyone in the audience, but no one in the film until about halfway through, when Eli Wallach emerges from the mists of the past to tell us that the currents around the island couldn’t have brought the body to that spot on their own. Meanwhile, though, Ewan McGregor, who does a very engaging job as the new, slow-witted ghost writer, has arrived on the island, met the prime minister, got down to work. The memoirs are already written, it turns out, but lack the punch the publisher requires. McGregor’s job is to provide the punch and you know after he’s had a couple of quick conversations with Pierce Brosnan as the memoirs’ subject that this is a lost cause, even if McGregor and the publisher are ready to believe that an unsellable hack job can be transformed into a hack job masterpiece. Fortunately, there’s more. There’s what got the previous writer killed. This is a good set-up, and I won’t spoil the suspense by telling any more of the plot, even if the plot does a pretty good job of spoiling its own suspense by delivering such thin motives and outcomes.

Retake. A writer, a journalist this time not a ghost writer, is summoned to a house on a remote, wintry island, and asked to resurrect the past. As in the previous version he spends a lot of time pacing about his room, looking at photographs and clippings, trying to figure what really happened, how then turned into now. As in the previous version he finds political trouble where he was looking for a personal narrative. Various bits of violence ensue, along with a sudden death.

This is not a retake, though, it’s an entirely different movie. The resemblances, as they say, are entirely coincidental, although we may believe that in the collective imagination as in Freud’s unconscious there are no accidents, only genres. This second film is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the first novel in the late Stieg Larsson’s bestselling trilogy (the others are The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest), coolly directed by Niels Arden Oplev; an American version is apparently in the works, to be made by David Fincher. There are some good performances here, especially by Noomi Rapace as the glamorously mean and punky Lisbeth Salander, but the real interest of the film in relation to The Ghost Writer is in how written it feels. The weight of a crowded novel is behind every frame, so that where there is slightness in the Polanski film here we have twist after twist, overwriting rather than undercooking. The Larsson novels are clever and busy, very entertaining, but also try too hard to shock us by constantly going one notch beyond whatever extremity we thought we had in mind. That makes them very violent and alarmingly sentimental: lots of bad people here, but most of the rapists turn out to be ex-Nazis too, as if we couldn’t get enough nastiness, and as if all offences were the same on a cold night.

Plenty of action in this Swedish movie, then, and a very satisfying end for the smiling chief villain, a psychopath’s dream of a psychopath, but I found myself turning again to The Ghost Writer with a sort of gratitude for all it decided not to do. Polanski has said he is not interested in politics, and I believe him. He’s not that interested in suspense either, which is just as well. What he likes, and what remains in the mind, is the set-up. It was a brilliant idea to have Pierce Brosnan play Adam Lang, the former prime minister whose career so closely resembles that of a recent one we know. Brosnan is an actor who can be suave and charming without the faintest effort but always looks like a model who has wandered into a movie from a photo-shoot. It’s not that he’s nobody, only that he has so far brought the same amiably narcissistic blandness to every role. In The Ghost Writer he is a little portly, exudes grandeur rather than charisma, but manages an interesting vulnerability as well. The plot in its early stages turns not on his memoirs but on the possibility of his trial in The Hague for war crimes, and his beleaguered response. At one point his passionate defence of his policies – imagine Tony Blair wiping the floor with Robin Cook on the subject of safety procedures – makes us feel not that he was right but that he was realistic, and if we don’t exactly feel sympathy for him we do feel there’s a dignity amid the smarm. Maybe it’s Polanski’s lack of interest in politics that allows him to catch this political sidelight.

There is another remarkable figure in the movie: Lang’s wife, Ruth, played with edgy, snarky flair by Olivia Williams. We know she’s the force behind his career, we know she’s jealous now of the bossy personal assistant played by Kim Cattrall. But Williams is so angry and funny and unpredictable that the life of her character seems to escape the plot and the script, and you find yourself tracking her along a double line: rather dutifully picking up all the hints that she knows more than she says and far more keenly wondering who on earth she is, and what she is doing in this film. ‘She’ the character, I mean, Ruth Lang. I know she’s supposed to be worried about her husband and her own future, but she doesn’t actually seem worried at all. She doesn’t seem scheming either. She seems … amused, even when she’s in a temper. Perhaps she’s not interested in politics either.

This is where we need to think about the house again. The Langs are entirely at home here, in a setting that is not their home, and that would make anyone else feel they had strayed into Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Adam Lang is at home because he is a politician, he is indifferent to places: he brings himself along, so what more could he want? And Ruth Lang is at home because this spiky, hostile location suits her anger and her pleasure in her anger, her stylish abruptness. The Ghost Writer is not a great movie, but it is a movie made by a great director, and at moments we are on the verge of stepping back into Repulsion, or The Tenant, closed worlds where nothing needs to happen or can happen, because the house and the mind are the same place.