Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski is at the top of his game in this political thriller about a ghost writer for the memoirs of a retired British Prime Minister remarkably similar to Tony Blair. Polanski masterfully builds a sense of existential dread, as the “ghost” gradually realizes that all is not quite right at the PM’s holiday home. The director knows just when to inject a little humor to keep you off balance (watch for the gardener trying to rake leaves in a rain storm), and the story unfolds just quickly enough that you figure stuff out just a minute or two before the movie shows you the answer. McGregor is great as the ghost, and Kim Cattrall and Tom Wilkinson are outstanding in smaller roles. It’s too bad, therefore, that all this talent is wasted on such preposterous plot. I can’t figure out whether Polanski lives in an alternate reality and actually believes this stuff, or whether he’s just having a joke on his audience. Either way, you wind up with a movie that’s a lot like a diet soda:  plenty of promise, but no payoff.

The biggest remaining mystery is where in the world was this movie shot?  Most of the action takes place in “Massachusetts,” but Polanski can’t enter the US, right?  Wherever it was, he did a good job — the vegetation looks right (although Belmont isn’t that rural), and most of the cars have Massachusetts license plates, with a couple of NY ones thrown in.  Movie factcheck zombies claim the buoys in the water were European types not found in New England.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

This is a charming little movie in the woefully underpopulated sci fi chick flick genre. A little boy, traumatized by viewing the death of his mother in a car crash, starts travelling through time. Never able to stay in one temporal “place” for long, he grows up angry and alienated. Eventually, he meets a little girl in a meadow and tells her he’s a time traveller that needs a friend.  Remarkable, she believes him. He manages to come back again and again (not always in time order), and when she grows up, he marries her.

The author of the book on which this movie is based is not a sci fi writer, and the story does not follow the standard conentions of the genre. There is little attempt to provide a scientific (or indeed, even a nonscientific) basis for time travel, and time travel “paradoxes” are cheerfully ignored. It’s really just a charming little tale about the nature of family relationships, with time travel  It’s not particularly profound, but it’s like as perfectly delightful as a small piece of premium chocolate.

Viewing note: like the book, the movie skips around time a lot. Unlike the book, there are no “time stamps” on the scenes, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell “when” you are. Watch for the disappearing gray in Eric Bana’s hair.

Wolf Hall (Book)

This piece of historical fiction, by the English author Hillary Mantel, has a strong political aspect, which is why I recommend it to this group. It’s a sympathetic look at Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Cromwell is usually regarded as the “horned toad” of the fractious tale of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.  In an age where most government ministers came from at least the propertied class, if not from the aristocracy, Cromwell was an uneducated butcher’s son who prospered by hard work and shrewdness. Henry’s ministers despised Cromwell, but Henry valued his unquestioning loyalty. Cromwell, untroubled by Catholic scruples, was willing to assist the king in the matter of his divorce (unlike Anne Boleyn or even Henry himself, Cromwell actually was a Protestant.) And Cromwell was unparalleled in his understanding of the uses of power.  It was in large part because of Cromwell that England under Henry became what we would today call a “nation state.”   A reappraisal of Cromwell is probably long overdue.

I take issue with Mantel’s depiction of Thomas More. It’s probably a necessary corrective to the hagiographic portrayal in of A Man for All Seasons, but I doubt that More could have achieved what he did had he been as much of a snake as Mantel paints him. At the end of the day, More chose to go to his death over a matter of great principle — no man, not even a king set himself above God’s law. Cromwell went to the block for more prosaic reasons.

Mantel’s other characters — Wolsey, Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and Henry himself, are well-imagined and historically well-grounded. The graceful writing style makes the book easy to read despite its 500+ page length (and there will probably be a sequel.)

The Booker Prize folks have made some strange choices in recent years.  But their award to this book is well deserved.