The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents October 2010 Return to Table of Contents
The Social Network
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Ghost Writer
Red Riding
Secret in Their
Post Focus
ASC Close-Up
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD 5.1
Summit Entertainment, $40.99

The first line of dialogue in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer occurs when the film’s title character, played by Ewan McGregor, asks “You realize I know nothing about politics?”; the story that follows proceeds to illustrate McGregor’s ignorance not only about politics but a great many other aspects of human nature and experience. Initially that ignorance seems ironic given that McGregor is a writer, but Polanski and co-screenwriter Robert Harris (whose novel The Ghost provides the source material for the film) quickly establish that their “hero” is hardly an artist. He doesn’t generate his own material but ghost writes the memoirs of famous men, and by never referring to the character by name Polanski and Harris suggest that McGregor has no real identity of his own; he not only has no politics, but no real point of view on anything. The Ghost Writer is the story of his very painful education in the shortcomings of this passive approach to life.

McGregor’s assignment as The Ghost Writer begins is to write the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British Prime Minister who is in the midst of a scandal involving alleged war crimes. At first, McGregor thinks his biggest problem is making Lang’s dull first draft compelling, but when he starts to dig into the politician’s past – and the past of his predecessor, a ghost writer who died under mysterious circumstances – McGregor uncovers a web of political, economic, and sexual conspiracy. As the political and moral implications of his assignment grow more and more ambiguous, the ghost writer finds himself in the same position as Polanski protagonists in Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Ninth Gate, and other films: adrift in a world of unfathomable evil that he cannot comprehend and which he cannot conquer.

Polanski has always been a master at conveying dread and unease when depicting situations like this, and in The Ghost Writer he melds his usual obsessions with a contemporary roman a clef. There are many obvious parallels between Lang and real-life Prime Minister Tony Blair, not to mention echoes of Polanski’s own situation as someone fighting extradition for past crimes – a circumstance that arose during the editing of The Ghost Writer and which gives it an unintentional but intriguing added layer of meaning. Yet for all the movie’s clever references to recent political and legal controversies, it’s less an attack on Blair or his American partners in the war on terror than it is another of Polanski’s masterpieces about corrupt systems rotting from within, and the costs of that corruption for both its victims and its perpetrators.

Working with director of photography Pawel Edelman, with whom he collaborated on The Pianist and Oliver Twist, Polanski creates a world of sleek, attractive surfaces. From the high-end bars and lounges in which McGregor’s character spends time at the film’s opening to the ultra-modern architectural marvel in which Lang lives and works, The Ghost Writer is filled with eye-pleasing sets. Yet there’s always something a little off – too much space, for example, which allows the settings to echo the moral vacuum at the center of most of the characters.

Edelman’s palette consists of mostly cool colors, and as the film progresses the imagery becomes steadily chillier, with an emphasis on blues and grays. This, combined with a constantly creeping camera that subtly traps McGregor within precise symmetrical compositions, makes The Ghost Writer another of Polanski’s Hitchcockian exercises in anxiety. It’s a movie packed with sensory impact thanks to Polanski and Edelman’s meticulous attention to every detail in the frame, not to mention a dense sound design that creates a sense of claustrophobia even when the characters are outdoors. Every aspect of the filmmaking, from the choices of angles to the richly written and performed dialogue, is designed with purpose and skill, and as a result The Ghost Writer demands and rewards multiple viewings.

The Blu-ray edition of The Ghost Writer is a “combo” disc that contains a high-definition Blu-ray transfer on one side and a standard-definition DVD presentation on the other. Both transfers are excellent, with the high-def Blu-ray in particular a solid representation of Edelman’s use of color and contrast. The details of Edelman’s richly textured images, especially in the outdoor scenes in which nature’s elements come into play, are sharp and vivid, and the range of the sound design – from Alexandre Desplat’s powerful score to the film’s many subtle surround effects – is equally impressive in the 5.1 mix. The disc contains three supplements, the first of which is the ten-minute “The Ghost Writer: Fiction or Reality,” a revealing interview with Harris about the historical, literary, and cinematic influences on the novel and screenplay. Next up is “The Cast of The Ghost Writer,” an 11-minute featurette that contains interviews with actors Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Kim Cattrall, followed by an eight-minute interview (photographed by Edelman) with Polanski. All three supplements incorporate on-set documentary footage of the cast and crew at work, and taken together they provide an illuminating look at Polanski’s intentions and process.   

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