Two Movie Islands, One Worth Visiting

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Pierce Brosnan

In The Ghost Writer, Pierce Brosnan plays a former British prime minister under siege from his wife, the press, and the courts. Summit Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Summit Entertainment

The two new movies by Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski make for a study in contrasts — an incredibly depressing one. That's because Scorsese's film is dead on the screen, while Polanski's simmers with a passion for storytelling. And guess which director is unlikely to make another movie?

Leonardo DiCaprio i

In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a US marshal investigating an insane asylum off the coast of Massachusetts. Paramount Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Paramount Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio

In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a US marshal investigating an insane asylum off the coast of Massachusetts.

Paramount Pictures

Scorsese's Shutter Island is closely based on Dennis Lehane's novel about a Boston detective, played onscreen by Leonardo DiCaprio, who travels to an island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a female patient. The novel is a slight but engrossing doodle about illusion — or delusion — versus reality, a bit like Paul Auster but more Freudian. For Lehane it was a breather between Mystic River and his panoramic Any Given Day, but Scorsese draws it out to two hours and 19 minutes of tracking shots and bombastic music and shrieking storms and detectives in long coats and fedoras trudging past leering mental patients.

Shutter Island

  • Director: Martin Scorses
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 138 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violence, language and some nudity

With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max Von Sydow

Without giving anything away, it's fair to say what seem like over-the-top tropes from forties' and fifties' noir are meant to evoke old movies — to seem artificial. But even when the Hollywood-detective-story foundation begins to crumble and the gumshoe protagonist is wracked with visions of concentration camps and bloody children and Nazi experiments, Shutter Island is still suffocatingly movie-ish. Many filmmakers when they hit their 60's pare down their styles and strive to be simpler and more direct. But Scorsese has become more impersonal, more like the big-budget studio director he so palpably wasn't when he helped transform American cinema. Here, he visually invokes a score of movies from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Laura to Frederick Wiseman's graphic asylum documentary Titicut Follies, and there isn't an image that feels organic. Despite a lot of heavy emotional lifting by DiCaprio and fun turns by Mark Ruffalo as DiCaprio's partner and Ben Kingsley as an oddly paternal head psychiatrist, it's all like window displays in a movie museum — or a movie morgue.

Ewan McGregor i

In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who attempts to discover the truth about Britain's former prime minister. Summit Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Summit Entertainment
Ewan McGregor

In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who attempts to discover the truth about Britain's former prime minister.

Summit Entertainment

The Ghost Writer

  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running Time: 138 minutes

Rated PG-13: some violence, brief nudity/sexuality, and language

With: Pierce Brosnan, Ewan Mcgregor, Kim Cattrall

Polanski, whatever his off screen travails both as victim and victimizer, is all there in The Ghost Writer, an audaciously timely paranoid political conspiracy mystery. Ewan McGregor plays a writer-for-hire who's drafted at the last minute — his predecessor mysteriously drowned — to rework the much-anticipated memoirs of an ex-prime-minister named Lang: obviously Tony Blair and played by Pierce Brosnan. Lang is reviled by his countrymen for hitching his country to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and he's now under investigation by an international human rights tribunal for turning over suspects to the C.I.A. for torture. The media descends on his U.S. refuge on an estate in an empty, wintry Martha's Vineyard, where the P.M., his severe wife played by Olivia Williams and perky aide played by Kim Cattrall consider the most prudent course of action.

The title character is funny, and Ewan McGregor has never been better. He's cheeky yet also watchful, increasingly edgy; and his eyes are as alive as Polanski's camera. The movie, based on a novel by Robert Harris, is perfect Polanski material. The loner hero is spiritually isolated, trapped in vast spaces — on dunes and rain-swept beaches under low, threatening skies — and unable move without being watched. There is an undercurrent of lust, too — a ghoulish attraction between McGregor and the seething, joyless Olivia Williams.

The Ghost Writer is not especially realistic in its depiction of anti-war protesters descending on the British prime minister everywhere in the U.S. — such protests didn't come near to major politicians, even in the war's heyday. But Polanski's touch is so sure that the film is entrancing to the last tumultuous frame. There's more than a touch of Hitchcock, but Polanski makes the fluid, paranoid style his own — an organic expressionism that dwarfs Scorsese's third-rate horrors in Shutter Island.

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