Friday, March 05, 2010

The Threat of the Ordinary

[Note: I will try to avoid spoilers, but I really want you to see this film.]

The setting is daunting and alienating. A ferry arrives on a Massachusetts island in a storm and as the cars get off, one remains locked and abandoned. As the workers on the ferry try to figure out where the owner is, we switch to a deserted beach and a body washed ashore.

Switch to London, where the Ghost, a professional writer who helps say what the authors can't, is hired to take the place of the dead man and help a retired British prime minister finish his memoirs. The Ghost, Ewan McGregor, is a man with no ties, no family. Against his better judgment, he is wooed to the job by the promise of $25,000 for four weeks' work. The only problem is he has to join Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) on an island in Cape Cod to do the work. As he prepares to leave, he learns that Lang has been accused of allowing four British citizens accused of terrorism to be kidnapped and sent off with the Americans. "What have you gotten me into?" the Ghost asks his agent.

Thus begins Roman Polanski's carefully crafted homage to Alfred Hitchock. Like Hitchcock, Polanski takes an ordinary man and thrusts him into a world where even the commonplace seems threatening. The Ghost arrives at Lang's home which looks much like a German bunker during World War II. High tech, angular, concrete walls and floor to ceiling windows which make the foreboding Cape Cod storms part of the environment. The house reminds me in many ways of the high tech gloss of the house on Mt. Rushmore in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

There's a wife and a blonde mistress (Kim Cattrall) at war with each other, a locked manuscript and secrets enough for all. Throw in the suspicion that Lang's previous ghost writer was murdered for knowing too much and you have all the elements of a fun ride.

Hitchcock loved to manipulate and concentrate on objects (think of the phone in Dial M for Murder, the glasses in Strangers on a Train, or a matchbook in North by Northwest). In this case we have a flash drive and manuscript, a wonderful BMW with GPS navagation which plots out one of the trips that the Ghost uses to solve his mystery, and the omnipresent Google provides the writer and us instant insight. One of the wonderful Hitchcockian (is there such a word?) moments is the climax of the film where a simple but deadly note is passed from one person's hand to another in great closeup. And at the end, there remains sly commementary as Lang's image looms in a poster for his book appearing to watch the action from behind another building. (It's the moment suggested in poster for the film.)

The score by Alexandre Desplat is evocative of Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock work [think Vertigo or North by Northwest]. Along with the violins of Hermann, Desplat in his most memorable moments relies also on oboe, tympani, and the celeste sounding like glass wind chimes.

Ewan McGregor plays the Everyman that Hitchcock would have cast with Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. He has just the right subservient attitude. His character is a reluctant hero in his story and McGregor is both personable and vulnerable.

I've seen the movie twice since it came out here in Chicago and I highly recommend it to any fan of Polanski, McGregor, Bronsan, or Hitchcock.

For more information and trivia on the filming, check out here.

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