“All the words are there, they’re just in the wrong order.” It occurs to the Liberal Ironist that this may be the thinking of a director who keeps making the same movie, as though he were concerned that the one story he feels compelled to tell hasn’t been told the right way. But that’s also the key to the Ghost’s story. I hadn’t previously considered the extent of Roman Polanski‘s debt to Alfred Hitchcock, but the protagonist as unassuming as the audience, the sense of understated critique of certain conventions of modern living, and the film’s capacity to make inert physical objects the tokens of an unseen threatening presence all have a pedigree in Hitchcock movies like Rope, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Frenzy. In The Ghost Writer the material evidence–and the threatening agents–are kept in the foreground; what’s missing is their significance.
In a previous review of The Social Network the Liberal Ironist observed that many distinguished film directors are always trying to tell the same story; the question is whether they’ve found the right way to tell it. In Roman Polanski’s case, I submitted that his “movies often center, as Dennis Lim cleverly observed for the New York Times online, on paranoia; other common elements include an ‘investment’ protected by many collaborators, and yes, an often-unnamed yet strangely-obvious sexual transgression.”
It should be added that Polanski’s films have often had a capacity for autobiographical prescience that transcend the uncanny, landing them straight in the realm of the disturbing. Rosemary’s Baby is about a coven in New York City with grotesque objectives; later that year, Polanski’s beautiful wife Sharon Tate and several members of her family were murdered by cultists in a famous and truly obscene event which left Polanski shattered. In Chinatown, the villain, an unassuming old entrepreneur by appearance and a monstrosity of unfeeling immorality at heart, responds to the confrontational protagonist over an outrageous sexual act: “I don’t blame myself. You see, Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of…anything.” 3 years after a classic villain’s cryptic defense of an act of violation, Polanski faced charges for the sexual assault of a minor. When in response to his abuse of his pre-sentencing freedom the presiding judge in his case shifted his sympathies strongly towards the prosecution, Polanski fled to France. Probably in equal parts out of eagerness to maintain its reputation as a cultural producer and to be able to say it had something we Americans now didn’t, France has refused to extradite Polanski. As there is no statute of limitations for fugitives, Polanski has largely had to keep to France to avoid extradition and the completion of his little-served jail time. These grim details take on significance in The Ghost Writer in Pierce Brosnan’s crucial supporting role as the alternately sympathetic and intimidating recently-retired British Prime Minister, the center of the plot: Having been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, a frenzy of protesters simply calls him a war criminal. He reacts with enervation to the short list of countries, heavy with rogue states, to which he can travel outside of the US to avoid extradition to the ICC. Polanski, who violated a minor in another man’s house and then fled justice, seems to have embraced the Robert Harris novel The Ghost as an autobiographical gesture; true to his ironic timing in storytelling, Polanski would spend the first half of 2010 under house arrest in Switzerland while local authorities debated whether to extradite the director to the United States. He was released in the summer.
The Ghost takes a generously-compensated job writing the memoirs of the recently-retired British prime minister. (His predecessor, the Prime Minister’s speech writer, washed up on a beach on Block Island Sound in the opening.) The prime minister’s private life and his public image are falling apart, and the Ghost finds even his own characteristic anonymity shattered by the weird mix of hostility and morbid curiosity in the crowd gathering around his boss, as well as the uncomplicated but unbridgeable turmoil between the Prime Minister’s wife and his secretary.
A drowning in the opening act, a protagonist from a disreputable profession, an undiscovered villain, an Ouroboros-loop of betrayal and the indirectly-indicated sexual transgression…Some great directors keep making movies with the same theme and even the same plot and character components, as if they are only interested in the different ways of telling one story. Roman Polanski has certainly perfected his craft in telling his. It seems his focal theme is the “protected investment,” on the premise that some secrets are guarded so closely that bringing them to light can benefit no one. We should consider the source before taking such a message to heart, but the fact remains that few people appreciate the dark side of celebrity–or the absurdities to which our inclinations can take us if we let them–like Roman Polanski.