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Roman Polanski’s paranoia runs amuck in The Ghost Writer, That Evening Sun shines

by Mark Burger

The palpable sense of tension and unease that permeates Roman Polanski’s work remains unabated, and still very effective, in his latest film, an absorbing adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost Writer.

Ewan McGregor plays the title role, never identified by his proper name in the film, a down-at-his-heel writer whom fortune smiles upon: He’s tapped to ghost-write the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the former prime minister of Great Britain, a man still very much in the public eye — for reasons that aren’t entirely encouraging.

Not only is Lang being implicated in war crimes stemming from his stint as PM, but the ghost writer’s predecessor has recently and unceremoniously washed ashore near Lang’s Cape Cod getaway, the victim (perhaps?) of a tragic accident.

Like many Polanski protagonists, McGregor’s “Ghost” is one of those guileless (but not unintelligent) characters who’s in way over his head. He’s not looking for a story, but it finds him — and it’s got potentially major repercussions. McGregor’s likable, everyman screen persona fits the proceedings perfectly.

Step by step, we follow the Ghost as he begins to assemble the puzzle. Much as with the character, Polanski expertly and tantalizingly keeps the answer just out of the audience’s grasp. There’s something there, but what?

With surprisingly limited screentime, Brosnan plays the role of Lang to the hilt. He’s charismatic and intelligent, yet furtive and dismissive enough (sometimes in the same scene) to arouse suspicion. When playing an enigmatic character, it’s often better to underplay than overplay — a tactic used most successfully by the actor.

Then there are the women in Lang’s life: Kim Cattrall (benignly wicked) as Lang’s attentive, adoring secretary, and Olivia Williams as his wife Ruth, a woman with needs and ambitions of her own.

Even in the smaller roles, Polanski has shrewdly selected his cast:

Timothy Hutton and James Belushi turn up as Lang’s attorney and publisher, respectively; Tom Wilkinson plays an old Cambridge chum of Lang’s, who just happens to live nearby; and the always-welcome Eli Wallach, still very capable of stealing a scene at age 94, as an elderly but eagle-eyed neighbor who may not know all, but enough to further arouse the Ghost’s interest.

Polanski’s teen-aged daughter, Morgane, is an amusing presence as a visibly bored hotel desk clerk.

The Ghost Writer is not slick, but it is smooth — a neat excursion into Hitchcockian territory, replete with an expressive Alexandre Desplat score that pleasantly recalls Bernard Herrmann, along with some Graham Greene and John le Carre thrown in for good measure.

Polanski, who adapted the novel for the screen with author Robert Harris, doesn’t simply emulate or imitate, however. This is very much its own film and very much his film, with its own distinctive identity and Polanski’s trademark sardonic humor. It’s essentially a political thriller, but a yarn with enough threads to recent and current world events to be topical and, in its modest way, important. It may not rank in the pantheon of such Polanski classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Chinatown (1974) or even The Pianist (2002), for which he won the Oscar as Best Director, but The Ghost Writer is something that so few movies are today, or seemingly aspire to be: eminently satisfying.

An auspicious, sometimes audacious debut feature for screenwriter/director Scott Teems, That Evening Sun (opening Friday) is based on the William Gay short story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down” and offers a powerhouse showcase for its leading man, the durable and delightful Hal Holbrook. This is a small film with an extremely big impact.

Having fled a retirement home, Holbrook’s Abner Meecham returns to the Tennessee farm he called home for so many years, unaware that his son Paul (Walton Goggins, also one of the film’s producers) has leased it to a local family whose past reputation Abner knows only too well — and thinks none too kindly of.

Taking up residence in an old shack on the corner of the property, obstinate Abner refuses to budge, much to the consternation of Lonzo and Ludie Choat (Ray McKinnon and Carrie Preston), who leased the property and are just trying to make ends meet. They don’t want a problem, but waiting Abner out isn’t working. Their clash of wills, fueled by pride and by ego, will eventually lead to a collision — and both parties will be at fault.

That Evening Sun has a distinctly Southern resonance in its story, both its pride and prejudices, and adroitly sidesteps stereotyping for the most part. The characters are well rendered and believable, none more so than Holbrook’s. Not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in the recent Gran Torino, Abner is a bitter, often unpleasant man — yet there’s a dignity and a resilience to him. He demands respect, even if he doesn’t always deserve (or return) it.

McKinnon (also one of the film’s producers) and Preston are fine as a couple whose marriage is imperceptibly fragmenting, and Mia Wasikowska (the young Australian actress who plays the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) is excellent as their teenaged daughter, typically rebellious but also wise beyond her years — symbolic, perhaps, of a mellowing in deeply-entrenched Southern attitudes. Barry Corbin and Holbrook’s real-life wife, Dixie Carter (briefly seen as Abner’s dead wife) round out the principal cast.

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