Film Review

‘The Ghost Writer’ Better Than ‘Shutter Island’

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On The Aisle

By Tony Macklin

“The Ghost Writer” could be the companion piece to “Shutter Island.” Actually, “Shutter Island” should be the companion piece to “The Ghost Writer,” since “The Ghost Writer” is the better film.

Both movies have a remarkable amount in common. Perhaps it’s no wonder, since their directors have a kinship of talent and vision.

Both are aging masters — Roman Polanski, who directed “The Ghost Writer,” is 76, and Martin Scorsese, who helmed “Shutter Island,” is 67. That’s 143 years of living, breathing movie heritage.

In the last decade, both directors won their first Oscar for direction: Polanski for “The Pianist” and Scorsese for “The Departed.” It was a long time coming.

Both directors were creative stalwarts during the 1970s, which many of us think was the greatest decade in American film history. Polanski made the classic “Chinatown,” and Scorsese made the classic “Taxi Driver” during that glorious time.

The main difference between “Shutter Island” and “The Ghost Writer” is that Scorsese seems to be paging through his encyclopedia of movies, and Polanski is writing in his diary.

“The Ghost Writer” is the tale of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to rework the memoirs of England’s former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), after the original ghost writer’s body is found on the shore in Martha’s Vineyard where Lang sometimes lives.

The new ghost writer goes to the island where he interviews Lang and tries to invigorate the manuscript. When Lang is accused of past war crimes for turning over four terrorists for torture, it brings extra focus on the manuscript. Media chaos descends on the island hideaway.

The ghost writer says, “I’m not an investigative reporter,” but he becomes one. There are mysteries to decipher and deadly threats to try to escape.

In the contemporary world of “The Ghost Writer,” Google, GPS and cell phones are the instruments of knowledge.

The cast is excellent. McGregor is ideal as the glib, initially uninvolved writer who becomes immersed in intrigue and then is galvanized to pursue truth.

Brosnan is fine as the former prime minister under assault. Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall are effective as the two women in Lang’s life. Tom Wilkinson gives one of his patented performances as a deceptive man of intrigue.

The photography by Pawel Edelman — who also did “The Pianist” — is palpable, and the music by Alexander Desplat is effective but not intrusive.

The two movies invite comparison because they are similar in many ways. They even begin with similar images: a boat approaching an island. The islands are enshrouded with fog and pelted with a cold rain during both movies. Both movies are dismally evocative. Many of the significant images are similar, especially fluttering paper.

We have two films that deal with isolation and unfolding mystery. But “Shutter Island” lapses into contrivance; “The Ghost Writer” has twists but doesn’t sacrifice credibility.

“The Ghost Writer” is lean and provocative and not pulpy and lurid as “Shutter Island” intentionally is.

One of the best elements the two films have in common is their tantalizing use of dualities — meaningful pairs.

Polanski in “Chinatown” made perhaps the best use of dualities ever in movies. In “The Ghost Writer” he returns to this fertile technique, and it really pays off.

There are two ghost writers — “ghosts” — two women, two sinister thugs who chase the writer, two places of living, two CIA agents, two major British politicians, hotel room 201, and on and blessedly on.

Polanski edited “The Ghost Writer” from a jail cell in Switzerland. He was arrested in Zurich last year when he went there to receive a lifetime achievement award. He fled the U.S. in 1977 after pleading guilty to a sex with a minor charge.

There has been a warrant out for his arrest for more than 30 years.

Obviously, Polanski’s personal experience is relevant, as it always has been, to his art.

“The Ghost Writer” is a stylistic thriller, worthy of the 1970s, by a very personal fugitive.

Find Tony Macklin’s review of “Shutter Island” at tonymacklin.net.

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