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'Ghost Writer's' real-life parallels haunt the movie and director Roman Polanski

Similarities to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the lead character in the upcoming film are unmistakable, as are the character's legal troubles and Polanski's.

February 14, 2010|By Reed Johnson

As Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor describe it, there was no need for the cast of Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" to have long, philosophical discussions about the movie's creepy real-life parallels.

It wasn't necessary, for example, to dissect Brosnan's character, a hazily sinister British ex-prime minister who's a dead ringer for Tony Blair, or to over-analyze his seething, neurotic wife, played by Olivia Williams as a cross between Cherie Blair and Lady Macbeth. It was all pretty obvious and pretty amusing.

Nor did the film's director have to belabor the eerie prescience of Robert Harris' novel, the movie's source material, in forecasting the ugly political fallout from the Iraq war torture scandals.

Of course, it did help that the director is a well-known connoisseur of grim ironies and bizarre happenstance, even when it occurs at his own expense. This septuagenarian French-Polish auteur, according to his actors, on set fully lived up to his reputation as an obsessive craftsman, a master architect of paranoid dreamscapes, and a benevolent control freak who repays his colleagues' allegiance and hard labor by helping them attain their best.

"I'm working with Polanski, I've seen everything the man's done, I know the dark controversy around his life," Brosnan recalled in a phone interview recently. "And yet he was right there. And once you know that the man works at a very high frequency, and you know that the set is his, and the camera is his, and you are his, then you have a great time."

Since Polanski started directing short films in Poland, his movies often have invited (or taunted) viewers to read them partly as encrypted diary entries and partly as Kafkaesque parables about the victimization of the weak and innocent by the powerful and unprincipled (or vice versa).

But none of Polanski's films has more brazenly connected this worldview to contemporary politics than "The Ghost Writer," a taut psychological drama wrapped inside a thriller with black-comic elements that opens Friday in Los Angeles. And few have been more tantalizing -- some might say "brash" -- in hinting at biographical connections between the film's story line and the checkered circumstances of the director's own life.

Yet however haunted the movie is by Polanski's personal demons, the principal actors found the director to be as supportive and personable as he is notoriously demanding.

"He doesn't care how long a scene is, he doesn't care how long it takes you. He pushes you to make it real," said McGregor, speaking by phone while en route to the Berlin International Film Festival, where the movie was scheduled to have its world premiere Friday. Meanwhile, Polanski, as most of the world knows, remains under house arrest in Switzerland, where he is fighting extradition to California to face sentencing after pleading guilty more than three decades ago to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. In the latest legal twist, Polanski's attorneys have said they will appeal last month's decision by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denying his request to be sentenced in absentia. (Polanski was not available to comment for this story.)

"He's a taskmaster, and he can put the fear of God into you if you're not prepared, if you don't know what you're doing as an actor," Brosnan said. "It was amazing watching him work. The camera is his alchemy chest, and the viewfinder is his kind of wand, and it's always there."

The movie's premise, involving a fateful collision of politics, celebrity and media, is of a conspiratorially minded bent so severe and dramatically plausible as to make John le Carré read like "Winnie-the-Pooh."

Its linchpin is the title character played by McGregor, a cynical hack and Everybloke who has landed a blockbuster contract to pen the memoirs of the controversial former P.M. Adam Lang (Brosnan). Lang, a vain, charming, born actor, is living in exile in the United States, on a remote, sublimely bleak New England island (actually shot in northern Germany) to avoid being sued in Britain for his alleged complicity in the mistreatment of prisoners in the "war on terror."

(Reader, a pause is suggested here to reflect on the similar shadings of Polanski's own existence.)

As Polanski turns up the flame of suspense, the ghost finds himself sucked into the vortex of the Langs' difficult marriage and global political intrigue. He also stumbles onto some unsettling signs of what really happened to his authorial predecessor, whose nasty end is depicted in the movie's opening minutes.

McGregor said he immediately "got a handle" on his jaded, Fleet Street-hardened character and relished his impertinent humor. "There is mischief in him, for sure, and a lot of that comes from Polanski, because he is a mischievous chap himself," he said.

The ghost and the British former first couple create a classic Polanskian dramatic triad all by themselves, locked together in their claustrophobic isolation.

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