Polanski's Ghost Writer: 2010's Best film so far

By: Mike McCrann

While building a reputation as one of the world’s most polarizing filmmakers, Roman Polanski’s personal tragedies and high crimes have been the fodder of books, documentaries, and constant press. Personally, I think he’s pretty creepy. Born in Paris, survivor of Nazi persecution (other members of his family were not so lucky), wunderkind Polish director Polanski came to the U.S. in 1968 to make Rosemary’s Baby. This horror classic with its themes of devil worship, etc., was a smash hit for Paramount Pictures and still holds up fairly well. Although I don’t much like Mia Farrow as an actress, she was pretty effective in the role of Rosemary Woodhouse. “All of them witches!”

Photos: © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

The following year Polanski’s wife, starlet Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered in Bel Air (along with several friends) by the notorious Manson family. Poor Polanski was branded by the press as being somehow responsible due to the disturbing nature of his films (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, and The Fearless Vampire Killers, which starred Tate), even though Polanski had nothing whatsoever to do with the hideous goings-on that night. According to the most widely accepted theory (which you can read more about here), the Manson gang was simply trying to send a message to Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, whom they believed had screwed Manson out of a record deal.

In 1977 Roman Polanski was arrested for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old-girl. Prior to sentencing, he left the U.S. and returned to France. His recent arrest in Switzerland has launched another avalanche of pro and con opinions of the famed director. Hollywood bleeding heart liberals like Steven Spielberg and Debra Winger are pleading with the world to leave this poor soul alone, saying he’s an artist and has suffered enough. Bullshit. This man allegedly provided drugs to and then took advantage of a child. And regardless of whether or not the victim chooses to forgive him—purportedly after a large sum of money exchanged hands—this behavior is not acceptable. Roman Polanski should be extradited back to the U.S. and sentenced. Even if he doesn’t get jail time—and I don’t think he should—he broke the law and should take responsibility for his actions. Polanski is not the victim here. And if you need that reaffirmed, check out L.A. Times writer Steve Lopez’s damning piece about the director, which brilliantly quotes the victim’s own testimony from the trial.

My views on Polanski the filmmaker are equally mixed. I think Chinatown is one of the greatest films of the ’70s. The script by Robert Towne was brilliant and Polanski’s direction was superb. Plus he should be given credit (or blame) for changing the ending of the film to the darker one that ended up in theaters. Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was a majestic film that I thought was the best picture of 1979. Starring the luminous Nastassja Kinski (who at 15 allegedly had an affair with Polanski), this lovely film was a tremendous hit, both critically and commercially. Filmed in France (as Polanski could not go to England), Tess was the last good film Polanski made for years. His subsequent projects, including Macbeth and The Tenant, were pretty mediocre. Even his Oscar winning The Pianist was wildly overrated and not worthy of the award.

Polanski_02All of this brings me to Polanski’s new film, Ghost Writer. I had no desire to see this film. Variety gave it a fairly negative review, calling it “low on sustained tension, and with a weak central perf by Ewan McGregor.” The print ads were also unappealing. But a couple of the critical quotes raving about the film made me curious, so I went and saw it on Oscar morning. What I saw was a totally stunning film, so expertly directed and acted that I was blown away. Every scene, every camera angle, every light was so perfect that I would literally gasp as something new and wondrous appeared. The opening scene of a rain-swept ferry approaching land was riveting. What followed was even more so.

Based on a Robert Harris book, Ghost, the film is about a British Prime Minister (think Tony Blair) who needs a ghost writer to fix his boring autobiography. The prime minister’s assistant has mysteriously drowned after supposedly committing suicide by jumping off the ferry we saw in the opening scene. Conspiracies and brazen plot twists follow. Ewan McGregor plays the new ghost writer and Pierce Brosnan plays the ex prime minister. Both are stupendous. I have never particularly liked either actor or thought they possessed real talent, but they give blazing performances in this film, as does Olivia Williams as Brosnan’s wife and Kim Cattrall as a mysterious mistress/secret keeper.

Polanski_03 Ghost Writer
has many twists and turns and a couple of Hitchcockian moments that actually rival the master.

Standing in for Martha’s Vineyard is the German island of Sylt, with the rest of the picture shot in and around Berlin. This country doubling is so well done that you cannot tell the difference. The cinematography is also brilliant. Shot on 35mm, the images of rain and grayness are perfect. The script is also totally faithful to the original novel.

As the film unfolded and scene after brilliant scene whizzed by, I kept wondering how Polanksi was going to end this film. Would it match what has gone before? I certainly won’t spoil the plot, but believe me the ending is brilliant. Despite having to edit this film while in prison and later under house arrest, Polanski at age 77 has made his greatest picture since Chinatown. Whatever personal devils have or are tormenting him, he has made a classic that, so far, is simply the best film of 2010.

Do I like Roman Polanski? Not particularly. But has he made a great film? Yes. Ghost Writer is stupendous.