Truth and Fiction in Polanski’s The Ghost Writer

Forget the politics: the controversial filmmaker has made a beautifully rendered film.

Roman Polanski’s new film The Ghost Writer permeates with America-as-a-danger-to-the-world cliché. This could be merely his knee-jerk reaction (or perhaps vendetta) towards a country that still has an arrest warrant hanging over his head. Perhaps Polanski wants us to follow Coleridge’s “a willing suspension of disbelief” when it comes to the villainous America of The Ghost Writer. But it’s preferable (and perfectly possible) to ignore the movie’s incriminations and take the story as some fictional international intrigue.

The Ghost Writer’s British Prime Minister Adam Lang (with a stellar performance by Pierce Brosnan, who will nonetheless go down in history as a second-rate Bond) defends the “bad guys” and justifies racial profiling so ardently, one wonders if that is what Polanski himself believes. Therefore, it is not even certain if Polanski is bound to this anti-Americanism. And he coats The Ghost Writer with such crafty, dark humor, that he brings levity to the political plot. Still, this new film is a small gem of visual mastery, made by a director with a bad reputation, but with a very good eye.

Prime Minister Lang oversees an American backed kidnapping of al Qaeda terrorists, whom he then orders to be waterboarded for information. The International Criminal Court deems this illegal, and he is to be brought to trial for war crimes. And only the Americans can save him. His connections with America lie deep and long, and especially with the CIA, which started his political career when a flamboyant Cambridge University student, making him, as the Prime Minister of Britain, one of the most powerful men in the world, supported by the most powerful country in the world.

Polanski exposes subtle personal dynamics within this grandiose political act. Lang is in the process of writing his memoirs. He has had to hire a new ghostwriter because his former one was found dead on the shores by Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang is staying during a lecture tour in America. Lang had a close, friendly relationship with this original ghostwriter. Yet, this friend’s death points towards Lang and his entourage as the suspects. And he later learns that this friend betrayed him by leaking political secrets. Lang is on Martha’s Vineyard in a secluded fort-like mansion with two women who, in their own ways, support and fortify him. There is his quick-witted but acerbic wife Ruth (played by English actress Olivia Williams), on whose advice he relies to make his political decisions. And his indispensible secretary Amelia Bly (Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall convincingly transformed in business attire) is also his mistress. After Lang realizes that it is a political rival who exposed his illegal - as deemed by the ICC - activities, he views it more as the politician’s personal revenge for having been fired from Lang’s cabinet, rather than any principled political beliefs that he might hold.

Lang’s new ghostwriter (played by Ewan McGregor) meets Lang and his duo of wife/adviser and secretary/mistress for the first time on this island mansion. He introduces himself to Lang as, “I’m your ghost,” and is nameless for the rest of the film. This new ghostwriter remains an insipid character throughout, but his naïveté inadvertently helps him to unravel the mystery he’s been forced into. We, the audience, in the tradition of Polanski’s other mystery movie Chinatown, follow him along as he wanders through false signs and positive leads until he finally solves the puzzle.

The capricious ocean, whose shoreline Ruth often traverses in long solitary walks, and along which McGregor is caught during a potential storm, is reminiscent of Winslow Homer’s paintings of rough seas. It is appropriate that the original ghostwriter’s dead body turns up on these volatile shores, setting the stage for the mystery and turmoil that is to be part of McGregor’s stay on the island.

Transparent Secrecy

The Ghost Writer is a film about secrecy poised as transparency, about superficial facades and hidden truths. One of the earliest scenes of the film is a close-up of gray waves rolling over a dead body. The following scene is a long shot of sky, water and sandy beach for as far as the eye can see, with the dead body an amorphous mass. Did we really see what we just saw? Was the object a dead body? As we later connect the dots, we realize that this was the body of Lang’s ghostwriter. No one is willing to clarify whether the cause of death was suicide, drowning, or the unspeakable possibility, murder.

Glass looms everywhere in The Ghost Writer. At the Rhinehart publishing house in London where McGregor has his contract finalized, walls have been demolished and replaced by floor-to-ceiling windows. Everything is visible from the outside. Even internally, sections are divided by unyielding transparency. There is no hiding from anything. But is there? Despite this open concept interior design, there are a few secured, sacred rooms. Naturally, one such is the CEO’s office. And that is where the contract negotiations take place, where McGregor expects frankness – after all, this is about a memoir – but secrecy and deceit seem to be the rule.

The modernist fort-like mansion on the island is the epitome of the architecture of glass. Whole walls have been transformed into windows, which are kept free from confining shutters or curtains. It’s as though the outside has been brought inside. But the freedom and transparency are illusionary, since the mansion is like a prison, with the ocean as its barricade. And throughout the building, elaborate measures of security guards, checkpoints, and hidden alarm systems are in place. Ruth describes it “like being exiled with Napoleon in St. Helena.”

False Frames

Polanski uses every possible opportunity for a frame: windows and doorways; television screens; computer monitors; paint canvasses; and the ultimate frame on which the movie is projected to us, the audience. These frames all enclose something supposedly concrete and truthful. Yet, all image-makers know how deceptive and unreliable the frame (and framing) can be.

The mansion’s giant windows are like huge movie screens projecting the expansive and exhilarating ocean. But this very ocean is what constrains the protagonists on the island. News stories and images on TV are carefully selected and edited for their meaning, such as the torture scenes that were “reenacted” to affect high drama. An old man framed behind a screen door, like a classic Paul Strand photograph of a rustic native, looks menacingly at McGregor sheltering on his porch from the rain. Yet, the old man is simply concerned about the dead body that was found on the shore. The many paintings that are scattered around the mansion are abstract expressionist, with elusive meanings and no decipherable images. Is Polanski also telling us to question what we see on the giant screen that projects his film to us?

Color Codes

The film is infused with gray. Like the color-field artists who used color on whole canvases as an atmospheric device, Polanski covers his film canvas with an omnipresent gray. Gray is the ocean where death occurred. The giant gray concrete walls of the ghostwriter’s headquarters display gray abstract paintings. The cars that dangerously maneuver the island’s country roads under the gray sky are shiny gray. Bland gray clothes cover Ruth’s body. Gray swathes everything in a shroud.

This pervasive gray hides dangers and truths. It covers the expository sun; Ruth’s tempestuous personality; the dead body on the beach. A gray fog of rain and mist constantly envelops the island. The wailing foghorn of an ever-present lighthouse regularly warns of the dangers the impenetrable gray moisture may conceal.

Yet, Polanski taunts us with splashes (or slashes) of red throughout the film. Red flashes in and out of view on the steady, permanent gray.  In gray London, only the double-decker buses are bright and red. The somber gray fort is decorated with red canvases of abstract paintings. Amelia, who is always dressed in shades of gray (and black and white which blend into gray), holds a notebook with a daring red gash at the binder. All the news logos, including CNN’s and the BBC’s, are in red. Red curtains cover hotel windows, and a red glow from exterior neon lights frames McGregor’s face in the hotel room he escapes to from his pursuers. Ruth changes to red when her husband is away and she gets a chance to seduce her young guest, the ghostwriter. Even the lighthouse has red stripes. Red is danger; red is blood. We have been forewarned.

Coded Language

Language is manipulated and unreliable everywhere in the film. When McGregor is first exposed to this project, his agent tells him, “Rumor has it that the manuscript is a crock of s***.” Throughout the mansion, Polanski hangs paintings and prints with either undecipherable words, or words with their meanings truncated from their context. What we do get to read in the art poster in Amelia’s office is negative, menacing words like “Scornful, Disdainful,” or “Love worth killing for.” Shady double entendres make up a good part of the jokes. A memoir intended to tell a straightforward written account of a life becomes rife with code. “All the words are there, but they’re in the wrong order,” says McGregor. When McGregor exposes the lies that Lang has told about his past, through documents that his dead ghostwriter left behind, Ruth retorts with, “Trust McAra (the original ghostwriter) to ruin a good story with too much research.” Truth is a liability, and should be evaded. Like McGregor, we have to selectively string together the words and language we are given to arrive at the truth. Lang, Ruth, Amelia, and ultimately Polanski are unwilling to help us.

Authentic Sound

A score composed specifically for the film by Alexandre Desplat, a young but seasoned composer with more than a dozen film scores to his name, including Julie and Julia and The Girl with a Pearl Earring, holds this Rubik’s Cube of a movie together. Desplat’s composition for The Ghost Writer skillfully integrates sound with images by introducing themes, accentuating suspense, and exposing emotions as varied as romance and fear. He even uses humoristic sequences to support Polanski’s entry into black comedy. Desplat, who worked closely with the film footage, incorporates many ambient sounds like car horns and clanking iron into his score. One of the most important is the island lighthouse’s foghorn. Desplat uses this as his resounding motif, producing a melodic sequence that uses the rise and fall of the foghorn’s moans to accentuate the sense of danger.

It is hard not to compare Desplat with Alfred Hitchcock’s prized composer Bernard Herrmann. In Vertigo, Herrmann incorporates a foghorn’s call for danger in his score. Madeleine’s theme song in Vertigo is reciprocated in Desplat’s musical sketch of Lang’s unhappy wife in “The Truth about Ruth.” This composition, at times romantic, at times melancholic, shows us more of Ruth than she herself is willing. Lang also has his own theme song, “Lang’s Memoirs,” which is played at discrete moments when McGregor watches Lang expose his true nature. The soundtrack ironically seem more truthful and authentic than the images, as Hitchcock also frequently showed in his films.

Film time is often expanded with Desplat’s score. One strategy he uses is to overlay a full musical composition over the images, which are then edited to stretch time. Such is the case when McGregor goes to the island for the first time. Desplat’s piece “Travel to the Island” is played twice through, while intercutting shots of McGregor in various positions – looking at the sea, reading signs, sleeping, walking around on the ferry, riding in the taxi – are filmed in one long sequence. These lengthy musical and visual sequences force us to slow down to look for clues that might help us solve the puzzle. Music becomes our aide in deciphering the images.

Final Exit

Notwithstanding Hitchcock’s notorious murder scene in Psycho, most of his murders occurred off-screen. This is another undoubted Hitchcockian influence on Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Polanski does show us the politically induced assassination of his main character, followed by the suicide of the assassin. But I’ve already argued that Polanski doesn’t take the anti-American politics that preceded this assassination seriously, thus he makes it a straightforward incident of gunshot then death. In addition, the blood that we see from the wounds is part of the symbolic red that Polanski has been weaving throughout his film. The deaths of the two ghostwriters are presented in a more mysterious and intriguing manner.

At the end, during his book launch at Rhinehart’s, McGregor foolishly informs Ruth that he’s figured out everything. McGregor then walks out of the party and into the street carrying the manuscript with him. He wanders into the middle of the street looking for a taxi, and eventually walks off-screen. A car travels at high speed towards McGregor as the music, in ¾ waltz tempo (dancing with death?), progresses in a crescendo. When the car is barely out of the frame, the music stops abruptly. The next scene is silent, with scattering papers blowing back into the frame. Polanski leaves this crucial last frame empty of its context and lets our imagination finish the story,

We follow Polanski’s imaginative processes with the clues he places throughout the film, from the canvases on walls, to the surrounding color schemes. One such clue is the coffee table art book he places in Lang’s office. The book is on visual artist Olafur Eliasson. “If [my] artworks make you think about what you see and how you see it, I think I've achieved something,” says Eliasson. This is surely Polanski’s wish for The Ghost Writer.