The Ghost Writer (Blu-ray)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Film Length: 128 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; English DD 5.1 (DVD: English, Spanish DD 5.1)
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish (DVD: English SDH, Spanish)
Disc Format: 1 double-sided combo disc (50GB Blu-ray + DVD-9)
Theatrical Release Date: Feb. 19, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 3, 2010
A paranoid thriller is a delicate amalgam, especially without overt violence. Instead of giving the audience information (in Hitchcock’s famous formula for suspense), you have to withhold it, so that viewers are never sure what’s happening. At the same time, you have to tell enough of a story to keep people interested and assure them that enough will eventually be revealed to provide a satisfying resolution. It’s a precision balancing act for which most filmmakers (and probably all studio executives) have lost any appetite. That’s why it’s so rare to get a finely crafted work like The Ghost Writer, the latest film from Roman Polanski, who’s an expert in cinematic paranoia, as demonstrated in films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Tenant.
(Author’s note: This review is limited to The Ghost Writer and its presentation on Blu-ray. Anyone wishing to discuss other issues should look elsewhere.)
On a wintry day, a ferry from the mainland pulls into Martha’s Vineyard and every car disembarks – all but one. Its driver isn’t aboard. Later his body washes up on the beach.
The body is that of Mike McAra, a long-time aide to former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is camped out at the bunker-like home of the head of Rinehart, Inc., a publishing company that has paid a huge advance for Lang’s memoirs. Lang is behind schedule with the manuscript, and McAra was helping with the writing.
McAra’s blood alcohol level was high, and no one knows whether he fell off the ferry or jumped. The people at Rinehart don’t much care either. Their focus is on getting the book finished, and they hire a new “ghost writer” for Lang. He’s played by Ewan McGregor, and since we never learn his name, I’ll call him “GW”. It’s one of the film’s running jokes that, in any interaction where one would expect GW’s name to be used, it’s somehow omitted. (Lang, for example, can’t remember new people’s names and routinely refers to him as “man”.)
GW is hired at a meeting in Rinehart’s London office, where immediately something feels “off”. The book’s editor, Roy (Tim Preece), tells GW he isn’t right for the job, but Maddox, the blustery head of Rinehart (an almost unrecognizable Jim Belushi), says he’s perfect. GW’s agent, Rick (Jon Bernthal), is thrilled with both the opportunity and the fee. Lang’s American attorney, Sidney Kroll (an oily Timothy Hutton), seals the deal with a nod of the head. Then, just as GW is leaving the meeting, Kroll presses a huge manuscript by “another client” into his arms. Take a look, see what you think, he says. GW is perplexed and shortly has good reason to turn down the job, but his agent calls with the financial terms, which are too rich to pass up. The next day he’s en route to Martha’s Vineyard.
After passing through heavy security, GW encounters what can only be described as “an atmosphere”. Lang is hunkered down with his brittle wife Ruth (Dollhouse’s Olivia Williams) and a small staff overseen by the silkily imperious – and aptly named – Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). It doesn’t take long to spot the rivalry between Ruth and “that Bly woman”. Lang’s manuscript is maintained under strict security that seems all out of proportion to the vapid tome that GW discovers when he’s allowed to sit down and read it. Is this what all the fuss is about?
The situation intensifies when the former Prime Minister becomes newsworthy again. Charges are leveled that, while in office, he authorized the CIA to torture British citizens suspected of terrorist activities. Spurred by Richard Rycart (John Pugh), a former minister fired from Lang’s government, the International Criminal Court begins proceedings, and the press descends on Martha’s Vineyard.
GW can no longer risk remaining in the otherwise deserted hotel where he’s been staying as the sole off-season guest – and maybe it’s just as well, since he’s already been accosted in the hotel bar by a mysterious man (David Rintoul) asking questions about Lang. He moves in with Lang’s staff, where he’s placed in the room formerly occupied by Mike McAra. There, a chance discovery sets him off on an inquiry that eventually has him retracing McAra’s steps in the hours before he died.
This capsule description barely hints at the entertaining atmosphere of queasy uncertainty that The Ghost Writer manages to sustain. For both GW and the audience, it’s obvious from the start that nefarious dealings are happening all around, but what’s it about? At various points, GW is chased, or maybe not; threatened, or maybe not; seduced, or maybe not; enlisted as a spy, or maybe not. Along the way, he has intriguing encounters with a long-time resident of the Vineyard played by the legendary Eli Wallach and with a Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson, note-perfect as always) who is certainly more than he seems – but what exactly?
Ewan McGregor holds the film together in what may be his best screen performance to date. He makes GW a credible everyman. A decent enough guy, but no hero, GW keeps thinking (and saying to people) that he should leave, but his curiosity keeps getting the better of him. By the time he begins to grasp even a little of what he’s walked into, it’s too late to get out.
The rest of the cast is equally superb. It’s no secret that the character of Adam Lang was inspired by Tony Blair; the author of the novel, Robert Harris, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has said that his breakthrough came when he heard someone on TV urging that Blair be tried for war crimes. But Pierce Brosnan made the wise choice not to “do” Blair. Instead, he creates his own version of a hugely charismatic and successful politician. The result is a distinctive character reminiscent of many real-world figures. Blair is certainly part of the mix, but, especially for an American viewer, Lang also recalls George W. Bush (the devotion to jogging), Bill Clinton (the bickering with an accomplished spouse), even JFK (the easy manner with the press). When Brosnan’s Lang is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him, but you also can’t figure him out, just like GW. It’s a brilliant performance.
As the twin moons revolving around Lang, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall create vividly contrasting characters, but each accomplishes the interesting trick of keeping her character’s thoughts hidden. Even on repeat viewing, when you know (or think you do) who’s playing whom, it’s often impossible to tell what Ruth Lang and Amelia Bly are up to from moment to moment. It’s a tribute to both actresses that their characters remain interesting even when they’re inscrutable.
What’s true of these performances also applies to the film itself. By the end, GW is able to unravel enough of the riddle so that viewers don’t feel cheated, but not every question gets an answer. After the film ends – with a killer last shot – think back over the events you’ve just witnessed and ask yourself which ones were masterminded from afar and which ones just happened that way. There’s one major episode that people could spend years investigating and debating without ever reaching a clear resolution. As any good conspiracy theorist could tell you, that’s the ultimate proof that the conspirators did their job well.
Summit’s Blu-ray nicely reproduces The Ghost Writer’s cool, wintry pallette. It’s a bleak film set in bleak surroundings, and the Blu-ray’s image provides the appropriate detail, black level and color differentiation to reproduce the carefully composed frames by cinematographer Pawel Edelman. The image is clean, but I did not detect any loss of detail that would suggest excess digital tampering. Nor did I notice any digital artifacts.
In forum discussions, it’s sometimes suggested that Blu-ray’s resolution isn’t necessary for films that don’t involve major action scenes or sweeping vistas. Leaving aside the fact that The Ghost Writer does feature some impressively bleak island landscapes, one of the reasons the film gets under your skin is the careful but subtle arrangement of elements within the frame into compositions that are unsettling, often at a subliminal level. Just to take one example, look at the scene where GW encounters the mysterious stranger at the hotel bar. The stranger doesn’t belong there, and the shot introducing him emphasizes that fact in its angle, lighting and the position of the figure. The stranger almost seems not to be part of the scene. The more completely this kind of detail is presented to your eyes, the more effectively the film works as intended.
Even for a dialogue-heavy film, the mix on this DTS lossless track is unusually front-oriented. There is very little use of the rear channels, except for a stray sound effect like a seagull or a distant telephone. General ambiance is confined to the front left and right, as is the jittery, insistent score by Alexandre Desplat (which is excellent).
There is nothing wrong with a front-oriented mix. It’s an aesthetic choice that some filmmakers prefer, because they want the viewer’s attention fixed firmly to the screen. One certainly can’t fault the fidelity of the track or the clarity with which it reproduces the dialogue.
Warning! All of the special features contain spoilers and should not be viewed until after the film.
The Ghost Writer: Fiction or Reality? (HD) (10:46). An interview with Robert Harris, who wrote the original novel (entitled The Ghost) and co-wrote the screenplay. Harris discusses the origins of the novel and its journey to the screen.
The Cast of “The Ghost Writer” (HD) (11:48). Brief interviews with the principal cast members about working on the film, with Polanski and with each other. This featurette also contains interesting on-set footage that shows, among other things, how the Martha’s Vineyard residence was realized on a soundstage.
An Interview with Roman Polanski (HD) (8:38). Polanski offers observations on the story and the contributions of some of his collaborators, notably cinematographer Pawel Edelman (who also shot The Pianist andOliver Twist). Unfortunately, the interview is too brief.
Trailers. The features menu contains no trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Letters to Juliet and RememberMe. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
A truly great paranoid thriller (and there aren’t many) builds its conspiracy out of credible elements that operate in everyday life: greed, flaws in institutions, family conflicts, human frailties. That was the brilliance of Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, which (with the possible exception of The Pianist) remains Polanski’s greatest film. The Ghost Writer reflects the same level of precision and craftsmanship, but its raw material is the political equivalent of a pulp detective novel, albeit a very good one. If the evildoers in The Ghost Writer were really as effective as the story suggests, the world would be a different place. But there’s no harm in spending two hours as a conspiracy nut, especially when it’s on a grassy knoll populated by such entertaining characters.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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