Ewan McGregor in Roman Polanski's film The Ghost Writer

Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” premieres at Berlin Film Festival

Anticipated at the Berlin International Film Festival was the premiere of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanskis adaptation of a novel in which, guess what?, there is no such thing as paranoia.

If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, Marthas Vineyard can be the graveyard of politicians. Ted Kennedy ensured that he would never be president during a wild weekend on Chappaquiddick Island, although Bill Clinton vacationed repeatedly on the Vineyard without incident, as far as we know.

Marthas Vineyard in the chilly off-season is the setting of  The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanskis thriller about a a journalist who peels off some dangerous layers of the truth while assisting a former British Prime Minister with his memoirs, which threaten to be weapons of reputation destruction.

Olivia Williams and Pierce Brosnan in The Ghost Writer

Olivia Williams and Pierce Brosnan in "The Ghost Writer"

This kind of thriller is not Polanskis game, but the film is no less personal for it. By not showing up for The Ghost Writers world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Polanski (under house arrest in Switzerland, awaiting extradition) played the press to maximum effect.  And why not?, given the films story.

When a ghost writer penning the memoirs for former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) dies in a suspicious accident, The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) takes over for the writer and joins Lang, his frustrated wife (Olivia Williams) and the PMs blonde assistant (Kim Cattrall) at a modernist beach house under cold gray skies. Watching television, they learn that the International Criminal Court will investigate Lang on charges that he committed crimes in helping Englands US allies “rendition” and torture terrorist suspects who were British citizens.

Since research on the memoirs threatens to make some delicate information public, The Ghost finds that he may also be due for a visit to the next world.

Its a CIA plot, of course, or it sure looks like one, and whos better to direct that kind of story than a man who believes that hes a victim of an American plot, Roman Polanski?

Actor Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor appears in a scene from Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer"

The film has been called Hitchcockian. As that overused word goes, this application is apt enough. McGregor is a successful hack who grabs hold of an opportunity that turns out to be beyond his control. Think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, although its also a twist on the Sunset Boulevard model.

The killing that opens the film soon points to another potential murder that targets The Ghost, the jaded scribe who thinks hes seen everything. The ice queen in an uneasy political triangle with the former PM and his gatekeeper spouse is special assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall), whose British accent coach seems to have been Madonna.  Shes no Grace Kelly.

The novel, The Ghost, was published by Robert Harris in 2007, at a time when its insinuations about Tony Blair and his obeisance to the US had more of a shock value that it does today.  Harriss best-selling novel, driven by the Ghosts whiskey-fueled interior monologue, had an irreverence thats much lighter than the script on which Harris collaborated with Polanski.

That said, dont assume that Polanskis dark paranoia isnt justified.  Drawing from Hitchcock, Polanski and Harris suggest a logic that you presume will resolve things, but its what Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the decoy that sends you down a false trail.

McGregor balances a streetwise savvy with a hamhanded-ness as the writer whos a servant with a bulls-eye on his back. The script adds a lengthy scene where hes hired by a venerable London publishing house thats gone commercial, with an improbable but autocratic Jim Belushi as a new boss calling the shots from the gut. Just when you think publishing has reached new depths of corruption, the movie takes you back into politics, although the pending indictment becomes the marketing hook for the memoirs.

Brosnan gets the aloofness and short attention span of the politician right, yet hes so charmless you left wondering how he ever got elected. Was that all an American plot, too?

Olivia Williams as his viper-tongued 20-something wife is the gem of the cast, lashing out in what we night call a rear action, knowing that her husbands libido has been transferred to his assistant. The old-habits-die-hard joke around the festival is that the Brosnan-Williams couple could have been even harder to believe, since Polanski reportedly wanted a 15-year old in the part.

Yet the movies real achievement may be in creating a believable Marthas Vineyard, of outdoor locations filmed on a German island (plus some second unit cutaways shot in Provincetown) and interiors shot in Babelsberg outside Berlin.

The verdict on the film in Berlin was generally positive, as Polanski awaits extradition for trial in California, where reigning Governor Schwarzenegger seems to have survived any investigation probing into the colorful sexcapades detailed in Heidi Fleisss diaries. And the verdict on Polanski, had he not still honored the virtues of the non-appearance, would have been just as positive. The director may not walk away with the Golden Bear, the festivals top award, but he would probably walk on the charges, if the press in Berlin were his jurors.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.