in Essays

The Ghost Writer: Polanski’s Spirited Vision

Not all filmmakers can be considered to be cinematic authors and stand amongst the ranks of the Hitchcocks, the Hawkes’s, and the Langs. Very few directors have the opportunity to embed their personal creative vision and have a distinct voice shine through all the studio interference one faces in the world of commercial film-making. Through watching the films crafted by their auteurs, we are given the opportunity to step inside the psyche of the director. This, in turn, helps us build a better understanding of their perception of the world through their exploration of themes and motifs using technical and creative mastery. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) is an example of a film richly encoded with the director’s strong ideological views on gender, displacement, and the media, which solidify Polanski as an auteur once these themes are compared to his prior work and personal life.

In order to establish Polanski as an auteur one must first revisit the definition of the auteur theory as developed by the French film theorists Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer in their “politique des auteurs:”

  1. Despite the collaborative nature of movies, a film has an “author,” who is the director.
  2. As an artist, a director can work within conventional forms and genres and still impose a distinctive “vision” on the films.

“Auteur” critics downplay historical or infrastructural elements to emphasize the “vision” or unified sensibility that structured the film. These critics prefer to examine a director’s full body of work, looking for recurring themes, symbols, and motifs that define the auteur’s vision. Auteur criticism also tends to prefer directors who worked in conventional genres (suspense, westerns, etc.), because they provide the best opportunities to see how a distinctive sensibility can manifest itself even with clichéd material (Kapsis, 1990, 24).

In this case, we will first use Polanski’s previous work in the thriller genre; The Ninth Gate (1999) to bring forth into focus the director’s reoccurring representation of gender as presented in The Ghost Writer (2010). The protagonist in both these films are single white males of a perceived higher intellect and are solely motivated by financial gain. They are both summoned by wealthy outside entities to utilize their highly specialized skills to complete a task that they are seemingly the only ones capable to execute. Also in both films, the wealthy individuals are white males in positions of high status in society. This creates a clear statement on Polanski’s assertion that we live in a capitalistic patriarchy dominated by white men. However, in both these films we are also presented with an interesting representation of females as being the undoing of the men at the top of the patriarch. In The Ghost Writer (2010) the wife of the former British Prime Minister played by Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), is seen as being a cold and calculated Jezebel that by the end of the film, it is apparent that she has been deceiving both her husband, Adam Lang (Peirce Brosnan), and the protagonist, The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), and ultimately killing both. Similarly, in The Ninth Gate (1999) the supporting actress Emmanuelle Seigner (The Girl) literally is the physical incarnation of the devil and plays a hand in the death of Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), whom similar to Prime Minister Lang, is the male with the highest status in the film.

In both these examples, Polanski’s representation of gender can be assessed as being reflections of his own sexual conflict. As Ivan Butler states in his book; The Cinema of Roman Polanski:

A Polanski film is very much an entity. Each is concerned with personal relationships; each, it has been stated, examines themes of sexuality (Butler, 1970, 176).

Parallels can be drawn between both the protagonists of these films with Polanski himself as being the lone specialist tasked to complete a project in a white patriarchal society and his female foil represented by the sexual abuse case that almost prevented him from completing The Ghost Writer (2010) (Bradley, 2010). Therefore, this is a prime example of Roman Polanski’s relation to gender and societal views being imprinted in his works in true fashion of a world-renowned auteur.

Next, one must analyze the director’s technical film techniques and stylistic choices to better validate the filmmaker as being an auteur according to the guidelines presented by the French film theorists that devised the term. Throughout The Ghost Writer (2010) Polanski implements a mise-en-scène that emphasizes on the characters’ sense of isolation on the Martha’s Vineyard-esque “Old Haven” that the film is situated on. Polanski uses a spatial imbalance to heighten this motif in the composition of scenes such as The Ghost’s (Ewan McGregor) bicycle ride to the beach and the emptiness of Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) oceanfront estate. This also helps achieve the feeling of displacement, as both characters are British citizens that are temporarily relocated on a secluded American island with the goal of completing the ex-Prime Minister’s memoir. To compliment this sense of isolation presented through the mise-en-scène, Polanski uses dull and grey colours as the film is set during the winter. The dull colours and lighting also give us an off-putting feeling of coldness throughout the film. The lack of vegetation on the island and the brief storm that The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) bikes through act as exemplifications of the strong motif of death, which runs throughout the film as the establishing shot sets up the death of the first ghostwriter and the final shot is the death of his replacement.

Roman Polanski furthers the sense of isolation in The Ghost Writer (2010) by framing his shots to show the contrast between nature and technology. A prime example of this nature versus technology theme used in the framing of the film would be from the deep focus shot of The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) at the modernly stylized desk he is being forced to use to edit the memoir. The shot frames the room so that we see a divide between the inside of the office and the empty wilderness outside the window of the oceanfront estate. The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is situated in the middle of this divide with his body pointed towards the side of nature as he begins to read the memoir containing the hidden secret left by the murdered counterpart he is replacing. Another instance of nature versus technology imagery causing isolation is in a similar scene where The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) places the usb drive containing the memoir into his laptop when an alarm goes off and the giant window showing us the view of nature is covered by a large pane. The high-tech security measures in this shot displaying the outside world being blocked out by technology provide a strong sense of isolation as a result of man made creations. Another implementation of this motif occurs during the scene that The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) uses the car’s GPS to retrace the final steps of the murdered ghostwriter. “While technology helps me come close to solving the mystery of the previous ghostwriter’s death, it is a squirrel that catches the attention of The Ghost” (Ewan McGregor), which incidentally leads him to notice a black car following him. This shot is fully done as the focus is pulled away from the squirrel that clearly represents nature, in the foreground, to the menacing black car, that represents technology, in the background. This theme of nature versus technology is also a prominent theme used by Hitchcock, who is a highly regarded auteur by the Cahiers Du Cinema (Kapsis, 1990, 25).

These techniques and stylistic choices implemented by Polanski to give the viewer the sense of isolation can be said to reflect the director’s own confinement during the production of the film. As the film is set in the United States, it had to be filmed in France and Germany and Polanski was forced to finish post-production of the film while under house arrest in his estate in Switzerland (Corliss, 2010). These technical choices used by the director to echo his vision of society and his currant state through his production is a clear example of an auteur expressing his art.

The final theme we will examine as an example of Roman Polanski’s views on society seeping through his art is his portrayal of the media in The Ghost Writer (2010). Playing upon the theme of isolation and technology as previously discussed, the media acts as the characters’ link to the outside world through various scenes that implement the use of television sets that bring in the media to advance the plot of the film. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) learns that the International Criminal Court is charging him with war crimes through a live broadcast of CNN shown on his television screen. Another scene which uses a similar device is when The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is having dinner at the hotel bar and is watching a SkyNews broadcast about Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) criminal charge showing leaked military footage showing illegal water-boarding torture of alleged terrorists. The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is upset by this and immediately asks the bartender to change the channel, which incidentally switches to a live sports broadcast. As The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) drinks at the bar watching sports, society’s opiate, we can clearly sense Polanski’s auteur presence through these implications.

Furthermore, the scene following that shows The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) waking up to packed hotel lobby full of bustling journalists and camera crews ready to cover the Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) story. The once empty island is now full of news reporters and protesters trying their best to get at the people inside the secluded oceanview estate. The sense of isolation is heightened by the media’s presence as the once boring and empty view from the Old Haven home is now occupied by a menacing and intrusive news helicopter. Polanski presents the media as a large entity that is closing in on its victim through accusations as we see the scene of protestors closing in on the ex-Prime Minister’s automobile escort. During this scene, the camera is situated from within the crowd where the depth of field pulls focus in and out to reveal scenes that read “Liar” and to give the audience the feeling of entrapment created by the media frenzy. Even though, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has not been convicted by the International Criminal Court, Polanski masterfully uses mise-en-scène to make the statement that the media has already convicted him and have taken away his freedom of privacy similar to one being sentenced to prison. Thus voicing Roman Polanski’s opinion of the media as he has experienced the same frenzy outside of the home he has been confined to (Corliss, 2010). Polanski manages to express his view of the media’s role in society through The Ghost Writer (2010), which reiterates his cinematic presence as a true auteur.

In conclusion, the 2010 political thriller The Ghost Writer (2010) is a prime example of a filmmaker using his art form to express his views on modern day society through his ideological representation of gender, the isolating nature of technology, and the accusatory imprisonment created by media frenzy. All of which can be connected to Polanski’s personal life. Roman Polanski skillfully encrypts his views in the films he creates through the Hollywood thriller genre using his technical mastery and gift of storytelling. These elements of skill and art enabling one to freely express themselves through cinema ultimately set Polanski apart from a typical Hollywood director and places him amongst the greatest auteurs of this era.


Works Cited

Bradley, William. (2010). Tony Blair’s Ghost (Writer).

California: Huffington Post Online. Retrieved 23 March 2011,

From URL: ghost-writer_b_464985.html

Butler, Ivan. (1970). The Cinema of Roman Polanski.

New York: A. S. Barnes.

Corliss, Richard. (2010). The Ghost Writer: Polanski Escapes into His Cinema

Nightmares. Time Magazine, 22(1), 205-221

Kapsis, Robert, E. (1990). Hitchcock: Making of a Reputation.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Polanski, Roman. (Producer & Director). (2010). The Ghost Writer [Film].

France: R.P. Productions.

Polanski, Roman. (Producer & Director). (1999). The Ninth Gate [Film].

France: R.P. Productions.

Write a Comment


  • Related Content by Tag