Friday, February 19, 2010

Limited Release

I've been wondering lately why the Roman Polanski rape is suddenly so important. After all, it happened over 30 years ago, and it didn't seem like such a big deal in 2002 when Polanski won the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist. Then, earlier today, I happened across a clip on HuffPo with George Stephanopoulos interviewing Ewan McGregor about his latest role in Polanski's film, The Ghost Writer. The premise sounded pretty cool, so I looked it up. It's based on the novel The Ghost, by Robert Harris. McGregor plays a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoir for a recently retired British Prime Minister named Adam Lang. According to critics of the novel, Lang is modeled on Tony Blair, and many of the book's ripped-from-the-headlines details are factually analogous to real life; Robert Harris was a journalist and BBC reporter before he became a novelist. His previous novels have been praised for their historical accuracy.

Well, after reading the synopsis, I decided to see if it was playing nearby. The Stephanopoulos interview indicated it was "out Friday," but there were no showtimes listed locally. I returned to the HuffPo item to see if "out Friday" meant next Friday, but no, it means today. Then I noticed seventeen people rated it on Yahoo Movies for a cumulative rating of B+, so it must be playing somewhere. I returned to the movie listings page of the Tribune to see if maybe I had missed it or misspelled the title in my search or something, but after a thorough search, I still couldn't find a showtime. So then I went to IMDB to find out if it was out yet, and they list today as the release date, but with the word "limited" after the date. Well, Chicago is a big movie town, what with Siskel & Ebert and all, and most "limited" releases include Chicago. So I went to the Chicago Reader because they have a tradition of listing artsy fartsy and controversial releases, but they barely even mention the movie. Then I went to Ebert's page at the Sun-Times. He has had the gloves off as of late, due mainly I guess to his declining health and increasing legacy, but there was mention neither the movie nor of any surrounding controversy.

So I went back around to the various stops in this quest to revisit the synopsis. In the movie and novel, Adam Lang, the Tony Blair character, has been charged in The Hague with war crimes relating to his decision to send several British citizens to the notorious prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, where they are tortured. This transpires as the ghostwriter (McGregor) begins work on the memoir. The McGregor character is apolitical, which is partly why he was chosen to ghostwrite the memoir. But revelations of Prime Minister Lang’s alleged war crimes pique his interest, and he delves more thoroughly into Lang’s past. In doing so, he discovers that there had been a previous ghostwriter assigned to the task who had died mysteriously part-way through the project. This piques his interest even further, and he uncovers the same secrets the previous ghostwriter had uncovered, namely Lang’s involvement with CIA black operations, not to mention clues indicating that the previous ghostwriter had been murdered.

As I mentioned earlier, Harris’s previous novels have met with high praise for their drama and historical accuracy. The Daily Mail called Harris’s Pompeii “a blazing blockbuster.” Esquire calls Harris’s Fatherland (which has been made into an HBO movie), “ingenious…fast-paced and beautifully written.” The Times referred to his novel Enigma as “top-class stuff.” But strangely, The Ghost was universally panned, with critics calling it formulaic and far-fetched. The New York Observer went so far as to call it “The Blair Snitch Project,” while simultaneously admitting, “if it were [true] it would certainly explain pretty much everything about the recent history of Great Britain.”

Well, since I evidently can’t see the movie, I decided to walk down to my neighborhood Borders for the novel. But it wasn’t there. All of Harris’s other books are there, including his non-fiction. Not even the movie tie-in version with Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor on the cover was available.

Hmmm….could this historically-accurate-but-fictionalized portrayal of Tony Blair be the real reason Polanski’s rape case has suddenly taken a front seat? And why else would a popular novelist’s most recent work, and an A-list laden film adaptation, be so hard to come by?

I’ve always admired Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, two of Polanski’s early works. I never saw Tess or The Pianist. I saw Bitter Moon when it came out and I thought it was garbage. Like his work, Polanski’s life is marked by remarkable highs and incredible lows. He just barely escaped the Nazis by changing his name and pretending to be Catholic as a child. His mother died in Auschwitz; his father survived his Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp experience. Later, of course, he became a successful and highly regarded filmmaker and enjoyed the Good Life until his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was killed by the Manson gang. The rape ocurred a few years later. A probation officer recommended probation and psychiatric counseling, but the judge in the case wanted Polanski to serve a prison sentence so Polanski fled to France. In 1993, Polanski settled a civil suit with his rape victim by paying her $500,000. She has since filed a formal request with the court to drop the charges. In 2003, she wrote an op-ed piece saying that Polanski should be allowed to return to the States to collect his Best Director Oscar for the Pianist, and that she “got over [the rape] a long time ago.”

But a crime is a crime, and rape is a serious crime, so it’s hard for me to disagree with those who think he should face justice. However, I have to admit my opinion of Polanski has gone up a bit. In this age of retraction and my-comments-were-taken-out-of-context spinelessness, it’s nice to see someone with the cajones to make a film like The Ghost Writer in the face of obvious peril. I only wish I could see it.
UPDATE: Some reviews are appearing online, but it's still not showing anywhere.
The movie's official site indicates an initial release of New York and Los Angeles, and "select cities" on 2/26, which seems odd for a recent Oscar winner.
UPDATE 3: Polanski wins the Best Director award for The Ghost Writer at the Berlin Film Festival.
UPDATE 4: Ebert likes The Ghost Writer.

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