10/40/70 #22: The Ghost Writer


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski.


The Ghost Writer (directed by Roman Polanski, 2010)

10 minutes:

The ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is on the phone with his agent. He has just been mugged. He is a dead man already. As with so many of Polanski’s screen compositions, this one is menacing for the small things it reveals, the uncanny objects, the dark passageways. Behind the ghost writer (unnamed in the film) there is the mantle of a fireplace, and a black, gaping entrance curved just above his hand. The movie is full of portents like this, secret glances, weird objects, all of which reveal the ghost writer’s fate. Polanski’s awesome power as a director is due in large part to the tension between the careful, classically composed screen space and the hungry objects which lurk in their backgrounds, threatening to devour the protagonist. The ghost writer is a weary man; you can see this in his face. The world has made him tired. It’s almost as if the supernatural world that lurks just beneath the surface of the natural world has caught a whiff of his weakness, his fear, and is closing in for the kill.

40 minutes:

The ghost writer has entered the retreat/residence of the former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), where he will have access to the manuscript left behind by the first ghost writer, in order to revise and complete it. He is met by Lang’s assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), and they exchange a few words as one of Lang’s protective agents searches the ghost writer’s suitcase before entering passing into the house:

Bly: Are you ill?
Ghost writer: No, I’m aging. This place is Shangri-La in reverse.

At the word “La” the image cuts from the ghost writer to the hand of the agent rummaging through the ghost writer’s suitcase. It is a moment of violation, an insert shot that is not essential to the narrative but that is essential to Polanski’s vision of his characters, who are subject to violation. There’s a weird psychological violence to the shot. You belong to us, now and forever. Does the ghost writer already know this? He seems to, and it is the strength of McGregor’s performance that it conveys the fact that, somehow, he feels he is doomed even before he knows it.

70 minutes:

The ghost writer and Adam Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), the morning after. It is a testament to the cruelty of Polanski as a director that the dripping-red painting on the wall is reminiscent of the blood-on-the-walls massacre of Sharon Tate, his 8-month pregnant wife, at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers in 1969. It’s as if the ghost writer has woken from someone else’s nightmare (Polanski’s?) and looks over to see its residue across the bed on the wall. The dripping red is more than just a premonition of his own impending murder. It suggests the whole history of Polanski’s best films, which always come down to this moment, when the protagonists sees their fate before their very eyes and we, as the audience, are never quite sure whether or not they understand what they are seeing. The ghost writer, at this moment, just awakened to the world, sees his fate and we see his fate, over his shoulder.

He is a man caught up the machinery of a system so large and so invisible that it might as well be ideology. He cannot see the truth not because the truth is hidden, but because it is everywhere. Like the letter hidden in plain sight in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” the ghost writer’s fate is so obvious that it’s obscure.

Notes (click to enlarge):

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →