The Ghost Writer: Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Boil

Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall
(PG-13, 120 min.)

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." Henry David Thoreau

If you can get over the director’s past, it’s a fairly decent mystery. The fog and damp chill your soul, while the relentless waves wash over the beach like the persistent clues that whisper over and over – murder, murder.

Ewan McGregor plays the writer engaged to take over as ghost for the “autobiography” being penned by the former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It seems the previous ghost, a longtime friend and confidant of Lang, has met an untimely demise.

That demise, or our first glimpse of it, is spare and indirect, like a cue ball clipping its target into the pocket. We see a ferry unloading, everyone returning to his car to drive it off the parking deck, a maneuver usually smoothly efficient under the direction of the attendants, who guide the exodus with the precision of aircraft handlers on a flight deck. Something slows them down this time, though. One car sits stubbornly still in mid deck, its driver nowhere to be found.

Until his body washes up on the beach. Whether it was suicide or just drunken stumbling – his blood alcohol level is twice the legal limit – doesn’t concern the publishers in London. They want the book cleaned up and ready to go in four weeks, something McGregor assures them he will do just before he is whisked off to the secluded island residence off America’s Eastern Coast where Lang is holed up.

The setting on the island, more than any tangible clues, sets up the tension and suspense that slowly build throughout this neo noir film. Of course it’s winter, with gray skies and incessant rain. We revisit the churning sea on the ferry trip over, its cold waters a reminder of what they have recently swallowed up. Without the sun and warmth, the sand and wheat grass become a vast wasteland instead of a private waterfront, to use the language of real estate brochures.

So too with the drop dead modern mansion, rough concrete walls awash in modern art, and sleek furniture, angular and comfortless as an adolescent’s lap. And Lang’s personal assistant, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) is an ice princess perfectly in tune with her environment. Lang’s memoirs, the work of an over-the-hill politician so muddled it needs not one but now two ghosts to wrench it back into semi-coherence, is under such tight security one might think it harbors the crown jewels in some secret hollowed out compartment.

Pierce Brosman, now broadening his range beyond the steely-eyed stares and polished seductions of 007, captures perfectly the public and private persona of the professional politician. He can lay on the personal charm without seeming effort, tracing his interest in politics to the beauty of a young Oxford classmate who was keen on the stuff, now the still politically minded Mrs. Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams). Whether or not there’s any truth in the tale is another concern. He can wax testy when pushed about his college acting career; he’s already been peppered by its frivolous nature. Then he’s even downright combustible at times. His explosion of anger is captured through a plate glass window, heated words and the cell phone thrown down in disgust, and all the more strangely effective because we observe it in pantomime.

And yes, Lang – certainly no effort is made to distance him from the obvious connection to Tony Blair – has every reason to be vexed. A former cabinet member has accused him of war crimes – illegally seizing suspected terrorists and turning them over to the C.I.A. for torture. CNN blasts the escalating accusations on the big screen TV as Lang, his wife, and Amelia, the personal assistant scramble for a game plan.

The masks come off, leaving our ghost writer, just a day into his job, in an awkward spot. Ruth and Amelia spar over tactics, and it begins to be clear that there’s a big Personal in Amelia’s Personal Assistant title, if you get what I mean. McGregor (I have to call him that since he is purposely unnamed in the film) is like a polite guest sitting in on a family quarrel over the Sunday roast, with no easy escape until coffee and dessert.

Maybe it’s more to escape this awkward ménage a trios than any compelling interest in the death of his ghost writing predecessor that leads McGregor to bicycling down the beach to where the body washed ashore. And if you have ever tried to bike across sand, you know this is a daunting task, especially when – yes, you guessed it –it starts to rain again.

But like the rain, our ghost is relentless. As he literally retraces the dead man’s final hours, we wonder if they will be his, too.

Will you like this film? It seems most of the critics did; it received an 84% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert lavishes on the praise:

Smooth, calm, confident, it builds suspense instead of depending on shock and action. The actors create characters who suggest intriguing secrets. The atmosphere -- a rain-swept Martha's Vineyard in winter -- has an ominous, gray chill, and the main interior looks just as cold.

 A regular viewer is not so easily impressed: 

Firstly, you notice right off that the film is made as shades of gray, an affectation that has been done several times before. Maybe this is meant as political statement, but it tends to make the film boring even before the story gets going.

 Kyle Smith is one of the few critcs not taken in by the old Polanski Magic:

"The Ghost Writer" is a movie about systemic lack of respect for women and the urgent need to extradite criminals. And guess who directed it? Roman Polanski, you are the Mayor of Chutzpahtown.

Several of the little people agree with him. 

If it weren’t Polanski, it would be laughed at.

In the end, I felt violated by both this movie and the critics.. (Interesting use of the term “violated,” considering Polanski's past.)

I’d say it’s worth seeing, just to see where you stand.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Let’s forget about the cold, soggy body washed ashore, the international political intrigue, the marital tension, the gray skies, and the constant rain.

All our ghost writer needs is a little imagination to bring out the summer sun and envision an old fashioned clam bake on the beach. And our Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Boil has much more than just clams. It’s chocked full of mussels, shrimp, scallops, lobster, and even sausage, not to mention red potatoes and fresh corn.

You can even cook it up in your kitchen and spread a picnic blanket in the living room to create your very own indoor private beach.

Martha’s Vineyard Seafood Boil 

  • 1 dozen cherrystone clams, scrubbed
  • 1 dozen mussels, scrubbed
  • 2 one-pound live lobsters
  • 1/2 pound peeled or unpeeled large fresh shrimp
  • 1/2 pound fresh scallops
  • 6 unpeeled red potatoes, cut in quarters
  • 1 large onion, cut in quarters
  • 1/2 pound smoked sausage, cut in slices
  • 1 package of crab boil, tied tightly in cheesecloth
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 2 lemons, cut in half, squeeze the juice into the pot, then toss in rinds
  • 2 ears fresh corn, cut in half
  • salt, to taste
  • dash of white vinegar

Fill a large stockpot, with a straining basket, 2/3 full of water. Add potatoes, onions, garlic, salt, crab boil, vinegar, lemons and sausage to the pot. Cook covered over medium heat until the potatoes are tender and the water is boiling, about 45 minutes.

Add the corn to the pot and cook for 10 minutes. Let the water come to a full boil again, and add the lobsters, clams, mussels and cook for another 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and add the shrimp and scallops, Let the pot stand, covered, for five minutes.

Remove straining basket with the seafood, etc from the pot. Separate the lobster claws and the tails from the lobster. Arrange the tails, sausage, seafood and veggies on a large serving platter. Serve with melted butter, cocktail sauce and hot sauce. Enjoy

Feel free to bulk up on some of the other seafood or sausage to substitute for the lobster if your finances aren’t in the Hyannis Port category.

Recipe Source: Martha’s