Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Polanski's ghosts

What happens to kitty-cats who get too nosy in Polanski's latest.

Who would have thought Roman Polanski still had it in him? Or that, given his legal troubles, The Ghost Writer, still in post-production when the director was arrested and incarcerated last year, would ever make it to theatres?

Yet here the movie is, thanks to editing by Polanski while under house arrest, and its sleek sophistication not only haunts and provokes, but also gives ample evidence that, perversely enough, the old perv is not merely an astute moral analyst but also perhaps the last surviving avatar of adult-oriented pop cinema. Indeed, whatever his sexual tastes may be, The Ghost Writer reminds us that on screen Polanski has always been most interested in grown-ups.

Perhaps desperate times drew from the director a renewed energy - indeed, The Ghost Writer may be meant as a kind of baleful warning of what we'll all miss out on if he is, in fact, imprisoned in America. Well, Roman, all I can say is, message received and understood. Certainly at least in technical terms, The Ghost Writer is at least as strong as, and perhaps even a bit better than, his Academy-Award-winning The Pianist. Its ambitions, of course, are smaller, and it devolves into genre-style twists at its finish. But for most of its length, it's like no other film seen in years - utterly calm in its command, with a mysterious sense of surface believability and what used to be called "atmosphere," along with a barely-hinted-at contempt for the postmodern histrionics of not only our newest filmmakers but even such "masters" as Scorsese (whose ridiculous Shutter Island makes something of a bleak companion piece to Ghost). Everything is scaled just right in Ghost Writer, and there are no immaturely obvious flourishes of "style." Polanski's manner (and it's his own manner, not a pastiche of quotes and references) is meant to not only subtly direct our attention but also call no attention to itself - and it succeeds utterly on both counts.

It helps that the script resonates in all sorts of ways with the director's perennial themes and personal dilemmas. As in many Polanski films, the plot centers on an innocent drawn into the power games of an evil elite: Ewan McGregor plays a nameless ghost writer hired to finish the memoirs of a former British PM (Pierce Brosnan) - because his earlier "ghost" has literally given up the ghost: he wound up drowned in an apparent suicide. Once McGregor is ensconced with Brosnan in his Martha's Vineyard hideaway, however, he begins to guess that his predecessor's death may have been anything but a suicide: the manuscript he was editing begins to give up clues that he was on the trail of something terrible in the PM's past, something having to do with the CIA, rendition, and torture. Indeed, right on cue, the World Court in the Hague announces an investigation into that very chapter of the PM's past, and everyone suddenly wants to get their hands on the manuscript MacGregor is revising.

We soon realize we're in a classic Polanski set-up: isolation in a gothically romantic locale (here Brosnan's ulta-modern beachhouse, which is more Hamptons than Chilmark, but never mind - this locale isn't so much Martha's Vineyard as an address in Polanski's mind); intimations of a horrifying conspiracy operating just beyond our field of vision; a subtle erotic undertow flecked with glints of morbid wit; and, of course, a superbly detailed mise-en-scène.

Many in Polanski's cast deliver the performances of their careers.

This last factor may be what's most delicious about The Ghost Writer. Scale has always been of primary interest to Polanski - he loves getting maximum mileage out of minimal detail (think of the hem dipped in blood in Tess, or the broken glasses glinting from the goldfish pond in Chinatown). And in Ghost Writer, his mojo for precision is back in a big way. It's been a long, long time since a popular movie has exhibited the kind of sophisticated sense of proportion seen here, and I found myself mentally stretching out in (and snuggling up to) the director's mature, confident juggling of cinematic time and space. Polanski knows just where to place his camera, just when and how to open up (and then close down) his point of view, and precisely how to direct his actors; Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson and the great Olivia Williams do the best work they've ever committed to film, and Ewan McGregor isn't far behind as "the ghost." Only Kim Cattrall, as the PM's conflicted mistress, stumbles here and there (but never disastrously, and she recovers elegantly by the finish).

Of course to many viewers there is the problem of the director's admitted crimes. It seems useless to point out to these people that the list of artists linked to serious sexual crimes includes James Brown, Michael Jackson, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci; when I brought up The Ghost Writer at a recent dinner, in fact, I was immediately met with a shouted chorus of "I-had-a-friend-who-was-date-raped-how-can-you-even-mention-that-film!" Discussion of the work's merits probably can't take place in the current atmosphere. But I would like to at least whisper that Polanski's work (unlike, say, that of Woody Allen) may have in one way actually grown in depth since his crime. In the director's heyday, he objectified sexual evil into vampire counts, depraved billionaires and even the Devil himself. All that has changed.

What we feel in films like The Pianist and The Ghost Writer, in fact, is a newly complex, almost mournful tone toward evil. The Pianist ends with a haunting coda, in which a single "good" German disappears into the Soviet gulag. And in The Ghost Writer, Pierce Brosnan's PM is utterly compromised morally, and yet has his reasons for his crimes, and ironically enough, believes his best hope for salvation lies with the United States, which Polanski points out (with tongue firmly in cheek) is now a safe haven for torturers. So not only can we savor the weird sense of "house arrest" that floats over the movie, which largely takes place within the confines of an ultramodern beachhouse/prison, we can also ponder Polanski's impish implication that the United States is in no moral position to extradite anyone for anything, given the blood on its hands. We're no better than he is, in other words. This will make some moviegoers scream in indignation, I'm sure, but it's a message rarely heard in pop cinema these days, and perhaps it's worth hearing.