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Ghost Writer

Now is the winter of our film-going discontent made glorious summer whom exactly? Anybody? Anybody?  Really, I'd settle for a hint of spring at this point. Instead, what we get with Roman Polanski's latest, Ghost Writer, is lots of steely fall. And in the place of a would-be political thriller, there is this tepid offering from the 76-year-old director.

Starting as it does with a ferry that plies the waters between an island and the Massachusetts shore, I was reminded of Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island. But where Scorsese fails with a bang in his current money-maker, Polanski goes down with barely a whimper. Throughout much of it two-hour length, I found myself thinking, "What is a supsense movie without suspense?" "What is a thriller devoid of thrills?" The answer would be Ghost Writer.

Ewan McGregor, generally as colorless as the muted landscape and leaden skies of the island on which most of the film is set, is the second "ghost" hired to enliven the memoirs of former British P.M. Adam Lang, clearly patterned after Tony Blair. But this former head of state is living in a kind of exile off the Atlantic coast, in a house that in middle distance looks like a small prison, but whose tony interiors reveal a domicile that seems very ready for it's Dwell closeup.

While some of the casting seems almost arbitrary, or perhaps mercenary - Kim Cattrall as an assistant to Lang, only slightly more credible than her tentative British accent; James Belushi, complete with shaved head as a publishing executive - Really? - I had hope for Pierce Brosnan as Adam Lang. Brosnan so effectively played with and against his suave typecasting in The Tailor of Panama and Matador, but he brings almost nothing interesting to this role.

What Mcgregor's ghost realizes far too late is that he's not a hapless character in a story driven by an evil king, he's actually an unwitting character in a modern, bloodless Macbeth. Appropriately, the main source of diversion here is Ghost Writer's Lady Macbeth, the prime minister's exasperated wife, played by Olivia Williams. We see her in early scenes, wandering around in hooded jackets or cloaks like some evil spirit. Her slender figure and sharp features parallel the typically keen, but weary intelligence she often brings to roles. She's all too believable as a woman who's lost patience with the stupidity of those around her, who's long been the brains of the operation, whether acknowledged or not.

As the ghost writer takes the job, a story breaks that the former prime minister is being investigated by International Criminal Court  for war crimes.   The script finds some teeth (and a rare bit of humor) when Lang is made to ponder the countries to which he might travel without risking extradition to the Hague.  America (along with Israel, North Korea, Iran and a few other notable abstainees; "there are a few in Africa," a grasping aide offers) is among the minority of countries that do not recognize the jurisdiction of the court.   But as for obvious references to the Bush Administration - a vice president who's a ringer for Condalisa Rice, a thinly veiled reference to Haliburton in the form of an evil conglomerate called "Hatherton" - there's nothing more intruiging (and depressing) than the truth we already know.  

The notion of the former British Prime minister being tried at the ICC is a provocative one.   But any drama inherent in the premise is completely diffused in Ghost Writer's bloated length and lack of momentum.   The same holds true for the temptation to read any tale of exile from Polanski as personal allegory.  If his own exile from American has worked  its way, consciously or unconsciously,  into this film, he hasn't found a very sympathetic stand-in with Adam Lang.

With so little interesting human action taking place, I found myself musing over Ghost Writer's numerous inanimate tokens of modernity.   The uber-modern Lang compound, abstract paintings plastering its concrete walls, a fireplace emerging from polished white stones in the middle of a room (ooh), a coffin-like wooden bathtub in the ghost writer's bedroom (aah).    This, perhaps the first time a GPS has played a prominent role in a film plot - can celebrity voiceover GPS be far behind?   And that ferry.   In the film's first scene, we see it dock at the island.   A ramp is lowered at the bow of the vessel while a giant inverted shovel apparatus raises dramatically.   When fully open, it look like the maw of some great, metallic beast, ready not so much to let cars and passengers out as devour them whole.   Cool.  

As for the film, not so much.  If you want to see a smart (and profanely funny) film about the dubious path to war taken by the United States and Britain, watch last year's In The Loop.



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