Friday, August 6, 2010

THE GHOST WRITER: Blu-Ray (Universal/E1 2010) E1 Home Video

Just when this reviewer had given up all hope of ever seeing an adult crafted, story driven drama with superb cinematography and compelling characters, along comes Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010); an exuberant example of classic cinema styling at its best. Polanski's magnum opus is fleshed out by superb performances, easily making it Polanski's best thriller since Chinatown (1974). Based on Robert Harris' gripping novel, initially Polanski and Harris had teamed up for a historical collaboration on Pompeii - a project never to materialize. Instead, Harris showed Polanski the gallies for his latest endeavour, 'The Ghost'; a Raymond Chandler-esque noir whose protagonist is the proverbial Hitchcock wrong man, but whose pivotal character is a thinly veiled knock off of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Polanski, a stickler for adhering to original source material, immediately embraced the project, securing Harris' participation on an adaptation that only sustained mild rewrites in translation from book to screen. All the elements of a classic noir are present in The Ghost Writer; a stark, mostly ominous 'page turner' set against the gray windswept backdrop of Martha's Vineyard out of season. There's our sullied hero out of his depth and element and destined to trip over a haunting revelation. There's a truly murderous femme fatale as lethal as any yet to arrive on the scene. And of course, there's a crime to solve - a murder; actually two. But more about this plot twist later in this review.

The story begins in earnest with Ewan McGregor as an unnamed ghost writer, encouraged by his agent Rick Ricardelli (Jon Bernthal) to assume the task of completing former British Prime Minister Adam Lang's (Pierce Brosnon) political memoir. It seems that Lang's long-time collaborator Mike McCarra has died under mysterious circumstances - his body washed up on the stormy shores of Martha's Vineyard. Reluctantly, McGregor agrees to complete the manuscript for Lang. However, what he quickly discovers is that Lang's private world has begun to unravel into a public spectacle.

Lang is accused by a former Cabinet Minister of having been complicit in the illegal seizure of terrorist suspects who were later tortured by the CIA - a war crime. At least one of those suspects has died and, as a result, the International Court is preparing to prosecute Lang upon his return to England. Arriving at Lang's retreat - a cold, clinical home at odds with the rest of the decorative Cape Cods that dot the island and border line symbolic of 'the box' or 'trap' that Lang currently finds himself in - the new ghost is introduced to Lang's entourage. Lang's wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) is embittered, impatient and subversively devious. On the other hand is Lang's mistress and press secretary Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), whose austere exterior hides a genuine heart of gold. Also close at hand are Lang's pug-nosed bodyguard, Roy (Tim Preece) and his attorney, Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton) who advises Lang to remain in the U.S. until the charges against him are dropped or resolved.

The ghost and Lang get off to a rocky start, the former becoming increasingly convinced that Lang is holding back on a deep, dark secret. The weighty manuscript already begun by McCarra is a lugubrious and weighty clunker that the new ghost decides to write anew under Amelia's watchful eye. In the best tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, these memoir are the film's MacGuffin - a hook on which the entire plot pivots, even though the immediate intrigue surrounding Lang is to be found elsewhere; mostly in his private affairs resulting in the coiling tension between Amelia and Ruth.

At precisely the moment that the ghost begins to lose interest in the project at hand he discovers photographs taped to the underside of one of the drawers in the room previously occupied by McCarra. These reveal an association between Lang and Harvard Prof. Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson); a fringe operative and advisor to the CIA. The ghost's appetite for the truth is further wetted when he accidentally stumbles upon an 'out of the way' refuge where an old codger (94 year old Eli Wallach) lives to confirm that there was no way McCarra's body could have washed up from an accidental fall off the ferry. The recluse further informs the ghost that a nearby resident confided to him this very fact shortly before she fell down a flight of stairs at home. Before slipping into a coma this neighbour further admitted that she had seen two sets of flashlights roaming the beach on the night the body was discovered.

Yet, for all his keen powers of deduction, the ghost makes his share of mistakes while delving into the heart of this mystery. After borrowing McCarra's vehicle to journey to Boston, the GPS navigation charts a prearranged course to Prof. Emmett's home. Where prudence might have suggested a hasty getaway to reconsider the linkage between Emmett and Lang, the ghost instead confronts Emmett with his knowledge that he and Lang were college mates.

The meeting ends in confrontation and a not so subtle threat made by Emmett, whereupon the ghost is followed by two men in a black car who almost succeed at tossing him off the port ferry. After a narrow escape, the ghost contacts Secretary of State Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), using the phone number he discovered on the backside of one of the photographs. Rycart informs the ghost that he is working for the 'right side' now.

However, after reuniting with Lang aboard his private jet, the ghost begins to have more doubts and suspicions about whose side he is actually on. At every turn, where silence would benefit his investigation more, the ghost proceeds to reveal all that he knows to people - including Lang - who could possibly do him great harm; not exactly the approach of a seasoned journalist but made palpably convincing by Ewan McGregor's superb rendering of the ingénue.

Exiting the plane at Martha's Vineyard, Lang is publicly assassinated, presumably by the embittered father of a military operative who was killed in Afghanistan who, in turn, is shot by one of Lang's bodyguards. In the aftermath of Lang's thought-numbing funeral, the ghost finishes Lang's memoirs - arriving at his publisher's book signing party on Amelia's arm. Inadvertently, Amelia provides the ghost with the final clue he has been searching for to solve the burning mystery surrounding both McCarra and Lang's deaths after she informs him that the original manuscript's 'beginnings' were briefly considered a threat to national security.

The ghost, who has brought the manuscript along to the party as a parting gift for Amelia now pulls out a pen, circling the first word of the first sentence in every paragraph from the novel's introduction; the sentence it forms revealing that Ruth was actually a CIA spy working underneath Lang's nose. It is she who is responsible for McCarra and her husband's death - a suspicion confirmed for the ghost after he slips Ruth a note with the words from the manuscript scribbled down. The ghost slips out of the party for a destination unknown, crossing the street to hail a taxi before being run down by the same black car that had tailed him from Prof. Emmett's home.

Thus ends, The Ghost Writer. At first, this reviewer must confess to not at all being sure this movie was up to Polanski's usual standards. At initial glance, the first thirty minutes of screen time seemed to drag and, at times, pointlessly meander. In fact, and only upon a second viewing, did I suddenly realize how brilliantly structured these early sequences are.

Here is a storyteller so self assured, so utterly skilled in his art of sustaining creative narrative tension that he doesn't flinch for a moment or rely on the oft popularized MTV Ginsu-approach to edit suspense into his film, even when some of the elements within this delectable high grade pulp tour de force don't quite gel. Is this mere stylistic postulating from Polanski, using time as filler until he can get to the real heart of the story? Decidedly not. In fact, the plot seems to crystallize more succinctly the second time around; the overriding sense of gloom and foreboding imminently more pure and startling.

Casting on the whole is inspired, especially Ewan McGregor - who brings curious, smouldering depth and a comedic edge to his role. Pierce Brosnan is wryly appropriate, if slightly over the top. The other standout performances belong to Ruth Williams and Tom Wilkinson - both deviously menacing and more than heartily evasive and cruel. The curiosity amidst this troop is Kim Cattrall who remains sympathetically in character but loses her light Brit accent midway through the film. By the end of the story she's Sex and the City's Samantha Jones magically teleported to England.

That oversight set aside, in practically every sense, The Ghost Writer is one hell of a good time - a self-amused jigsaw puzzle; unsettling, slick and seductive - a genuine thriller with guts. Like all truly great works of art, it cannot be properly digested from either a single vantage or viewing, and, like all superbly crafted popcorn movies it demands our renewed respect with growing admiration for the total craftsmanship on display.

E1 Films Blu-Ray release exhibits a sumptuous 1080p hi-def transfer that perfectly captures all the stark, abysmal spookiness of Martha's Vineyard out of season. Owing to the fact that Polanski is still facing a rape charge in the United States, the film is an intriguing blend of live action and rear projection, to recreate Martha's Vineyard. The results are convincing and seamless. The Blu-Ray transfer extols all the virtues and none of the vices of this matte work.

We get a subtly nuanced image with intense fine details throughout - a crisp and clean rendering that looks absolutely fabulous. Even during the darkest scenes, the image exhibits an incredible amount of information. The stylized color palette exhibits rich hues used sparingly to create a genuine sense of absolute isolation. The audio is lossless 5.1 DTS, precisely balanced and delivering a sustained, if quiet, sonic rendering that is supportive of the picture elements. Extras on this disc are the most disappointing. We get three all too brief featurettes in which cast and crew offer sound bytes about their involvement with the project. Polanski offers only the most superficial of insights into the process by which he creates movie magic. Despite these oversights, The Ghost Writer: comes highly recommended! It is a must see!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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