THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
As in his previous films, Roman Polanski paid tribute to Alfred Hitchcock by using the device of the “MacGuffin” in The Ghost Writer. The MacGuffin, the object that does not matter, is the supposedly revealing manuscript, written by a writer who is now a ghost, washed up on the beaches of Nantucket. Hitchcock’s MacGuffins appeared regularly in his films, for example, as a spool of film in North by Northwest, but the raison d’être of the plot was to resolve Cary Grant’s mother complex and to mate him, correctly, with the cool/hot blonde, Eva Marie Saint. The spies vying for the information embedded in the film and the information itself were all irrelevant. For Hitchcock, it was always the Romance. Famous for his irony, Hitchcock proves to be a cheerful soul compared to Polanski’s dark inner visions. In The Ghost Writer, there is no romance, no happy ending, no resolution beyond a cynical slap at the CIA and a farewell to the puppet people die and a salute to the master manipulators live long and prosper.
Due to a certain unpleasantness three decades ago, Polanski cannot come to America, much less film here, and sites in Germany were stand-ins for Massachusetts. To those of us who have visited or lived along the coast of that tiny state, never has Nantucket looked so bleak and so hopeless and so depressing. The island of Sylt (pronounced “silt?”) provided the backdrop for the set in Berlin where a hard modern house was deconstructed. As loveless and as heartless as the dunes projected beyond the cold floor to ceiling windows, the house is hardly a hiding place, which may be Polanski’s point. Even for a defrocked British Prime Minister (or a sex offender), there is no refuge. Not a ray of sun is allowed to penetrate and the film is enveloped in an endless chill razor sharp rain. This is the territory of Caspar David Friedrich. McGregor stalks around the island, adrift in the North Sea, like Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea.
The story, obviously, is a fable. Like many such tales, it attempts to explain the world and its wily workings. Polanski settles on the “vast right-wing conspiracy” to explain the unaccountable poodle behavior of Tony Blair, who fecklessly followed George Bush into an undeclared and unnecessary war in Iraq. Personally, I would favor the Occam’s Razor solution: a man crush, or, if you prefer, a bromance got the better of Blair. But Polanski preferred something more complex, more Hillary-like, and the answer to the riddle of why an otherwise intelligent man would fall in line with an obviously deluded man lies in the manuscript that tells all. The fun of the film is not the discovery but the journey of discovery undertaken by a nameless expendable “ghost writer.”
For the girls among us there is much to be grateful for here. Good-looking men abound. Pierce Brosnon has his best part in years and proved that there is life beyond James Bond. A bit paunchy but still Remington Steele handsome, Brosnon is “Andrew Lang,” aka Tony Blair, who is not played, for once, by Michael Sheen. His hapless foil is Ewan McGregor, also in his best part in years. For those of us who have followed him from The Pillow Book to Top Gear, it is good to see him challenged and emerging from his post-Star Wars slump. McGregor is a nameless plot point, thrown into a Gothic tale by James Belushi, also in a great role. McGregor, the “ghost,” reminds one of the Governess, who has no recourse and must take the job in the Old Dark House. Although the Master of the House warns her to mind her own business, she snoops around in search of the Strange Noises in the Attic. The Housekeeper is Kim Cattrall, another post-star. She downplays her “Samantha” aura and underplays her role as the Keeper of the Locked Drawer wherein the Manuscript resides. The master of the house, the PM, gives the ghost the runaround, suggesting that the truth may never be told and that the manuscript is a fabrication, but of what we are never quite sure.
One might wonder why anyone, in this day and age, would print out a manuscript. If it was explained who put the book on paper or why the “ghost” had to revise by hand, rather than with “track changes,” I don’t remember. Possibly, Polanski left it to his computer savvy audience to realize that a printed book is a mystery in itself. It is equally unclear why the “ghost” is alternatively given and denied access to the manuscript, but never mind. McGregor decides that his job is to find the truth, rather than do the job he was hired for and get out of that horrible hard house with his payment clutched in his hand. To underscore to the audience that the manuscript, so ostentatiously locked away by Cattrell, has no significant content, Polanski allows McGregor to solve the mystery with a simple Google search. Lang, the Prime Minister, joined the Labour Party before he claimed he did, and his wife was a student of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), who, according to Google, is a spy for the CIA. And I thought spies were secret agents.
Meanwhile, along the way, the Prime Minister’s wife, played by Olivia Williams, sleeps with the “ghost” for no particular reason. We suspect she is annoyed at her husband. Equally incidentally, someone shoots poor Lang and we assume he has outlived his usefulness. Just in case we were too dim to “connect the dots,” in the favorite refrain of terrorist hunters, the secret was spelled out in a childlike code in letters fortuitously lined up on the original mysterious manuscript. An impressive printer, I must say. But what was the secret that Dares not Speak its Name? That the wife (women as the root of all evil) turned a Labour politician into a CIA operative, a sleeper, who was activated on behalf of a Halliburton-like company, which wanted to go to war to get oil. In the end we learn where the Prime Minister learned to poodle: at his wife’s hands.
In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Marjorie Miller called the solution to the mystery “facile.” True, but if the mystery is the MacGuffin then the real point of The Ghost Writer is that we need to explain why we, “the good guys,” invaded Iraq in a “preemptive” war. The Ghost Writer gives us an answer that exonerates us of responsibility. Like a Hardy Boy, the “ghost” discovers the Secret of the Manuscript, but the pawn meets his fate in the streets of New York (Berlin), where he is run over by a car. The pages of the manuscript fly in the wind, connecting the last dot to 9/11. The CIA just happened to have a sleeper operative, handled by his wife, who was, in turn handled by an Ivy League professor. This operative became Prime Minister of England, and it was he who led the President into Iraq, using 9/11 as an excuse. So the President was the Poodle. Is that the solution? The British wanted to return to Iraq and regain control of the territory they once invaded for its oil in the 1920s. Rule Britannia. And German taxpayers—opponents of the war—-funded 10% of the cost of The Ghost Writer. Where’s Glenn Beck and his magic chalk board when you need him?
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger