Reading Note:
The Ghost Writer, Freedom

Does the principal action of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer take four days or five? This is the question that I keep coming back to as I prepare to write a few remarks about the film, which I have been watching in an endless loop for four or five days.

Let’s see: on Day 1, the unnamed ghost writer is awarded the job of taking up where a previous ghost, whose corpse washes up on a beach in the film’s second scene, left off. The new ghost flies to from London to Martha’s Vineyard that night. On Day 2, he arrives at the seaside fastness belonging to publisher Marty Rhinehart, whose firm has paid former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang $10 million for his memoirs — a manuscript in serious need of ghosting. The ghost writer reads the manuscript and takes a walk with Lang’s wife, the acerbic Ruth Capel — clearly the political brains of this gang.

On Day 3, the ghost and Lang have their first (and only) session, interrupted by news that Lang might be prosecuted for war crimes: he has assisted American President Bush in the dark practice of extraordinary rendition. With the Lang household in an uproar, the ghost retires to his hotel to work. He has a strange encounter with an Englishman in the hotel bar, and finds that his room has been improperly entered. In the morning of Day 4, he is told to check out of the hotel, which is now the site of a media feeding frenzy, in anticipation of an ICC investigation of Lang’s conduct. Lang’s lawyer flies in and arranges for a whitewashing reception by the Secretary of State and the Vice President in Washington. After Lang’s departure, the ghost discovers interesting photographs in his room, previously occupied by his dead predecessor. An intimate evening with Ruth Capel ensues.

On Day 5, the ghost decides to go back to his hotel, but the GPS in the spare van that’s kept on for guests, and that was previously driven by the dead ghost, leads him on another mission altogether, to the Massachusetts home of a man who figures in one of those interesting photographs. On his way back to the island, the ghost worries that he is being followed by ill-intentioned men, and he seeks the aid of a Lang defector. Notwithstanding this, he is fetched by Adam Lang’s plane, en route from New York to the island. The ghost and his client have an argument about terrorism on the short flight. At the airport, Adam Lang is assassinated by the Englishman who accosted the ghost at the hotel.

What follows, through to the film’s end, occupies an indefinite extent of narrative time. In film time, however, exactly ten minutes elapse between Adam Lang’s death and the moment of Ruth Capel’s realization that her dreadful secret has been discovered by the ghost writer. The film itself is over within the following minute. 

I’ve had to work this out on paper because Polanski seems to be interested in effacing the boundaries between one day and the next: his action appears as a unitary affair that never sleeps, even when the characters do. But it has been very carefully thought out and very densely packed. There are all sorts of formal flourishes that won’t be noticed by most viewers until the fourth or fifth exposure. On Days 2 and 4, for example, Ruth and the ghost walk over the dunes, back from the beach, and Ruth expresses regret. First, that she would rather be in England. Second, that the previous ghost died “so far from home.” I’ve notice this, as I say, but I don’t yet know quite what to make of it.

Ever since Chinatown was released, in 1974, it has been hailed as a triumph of screenwriting. No less superb is its score, by the late great Jerry Goldsmith. Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Ghost Writer is equally intense. There is a wonderful Hitchcock moment, when the ghost is bicycling in the rain in what really does amount to a vintage Hitchcockian episode; I ought rather to call it a “Herrmannian” moment.

Just when I worry about getting a bit sick of The Ghost Writer, along comes Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, which somehow, I’m not quite sure why, came into my possession today. If Freedom came with a soundtrack, it would be every bit as sticky as Polanski’s movie. Considering that I haven’t read it through even once, it’s actually stickier.