CD Review: The Ghost Writer – Original Soundtrack

By • March 15, 2010

Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
Grade: A


Roman Polanski might get tortured by fate, not to mention by the misadventures that his own hubris has put him through. Perhaps that’s why most of his films subtly delight in black humor, whether it derives from the director’s own mind falling apart as THE TENANT, or from the depraved kinkiness of BITTER MOON. Now with its off-kilter look at terrorist rendition and political corruption (not to mention a character who’s virtually imprisoned in his luxurious house), THE GHOST WRITER might stand as the director’s most overtly ironic yuckfest of all- not that any character is laughing out loud, mind you. But as the titular protagonist’s discoveries brim over with one gasp after the other, the breathlessly mordant suspense of THE GHOST WRITER becomes positively jovial in the hands of composer Alexandre Desplat. After the lethally suspenseful likes of THE NEST, HOSTAGE and FIREWALL, Desplat at last gets to be serious while not being serious at all, his music sharing Polanksi’s humor with a score that’s part homage, while still being very much in tune with the composer’s own clever body of work.

And that’s just about everything that can be said about Polanski himself here. The director has certainly worked with some of the filmscoring greats, including Krzystof Komeda (ROSEMARY’S BABY), Philippe Sarde (THE TENANT, TESS, PIRATES), Vangelis (BITTER MOON), Wojciech Kilar (DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, THE NINTH GATE, THE PIANIST) and Rachel Portman (OLIVER TWIST). But of all of his movies that involve some sort of conspiracy, Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated film noir stylings for CHINATOWN are the most renowned. I can dare to say that while nothing is going to top that classic score, THE GHOST WRITER is a far more entertaining and clearly comprehensible film with its ripped-from-the-international-headlines story that gets uncovered by its vainglorious hero, as opposed to Jake Gittes discovering the nefarious water re-routing plans of Los Angeles. Yet CHINATOWN’s jazzy sensibility is very much present in the clarinet and string vibe that Desplat gives to “In the Woods” and the percussion of “The Truth About Ruth,” let alone in the jazz flute technique that gives his main theme a reedy sound in “The Ghost Writer.” It’s music that immediately tips you off to this score’s delightfully off-kilter tone as four flutists blow with the kind of harmony usually reserved for one musician.

Goldsmith himself would probably be amused by how Desplat’s updated the jazz idiom for real world affairs. But what reviews of the film are mostly centering on is how Desplat pays tribute to the mesmerizing strings and bell percussion of Bernard Herrmann. While such cues as “Suspicion” certainly has that composer’s famed, eerily romantic quality, there’s even more of Desplat’s admiration for Ennio Morricone’s style on display. First giving a delightful tip of the hat to the composer’s Spaghetti Western stylings in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, Desplat now has GHOST WRITER brimming over with the kind of driving string movements that American listeners will pick up from such Morricone suspense scores as DISCLOSURE and THE UNTOUCHABLES – let alone Polanksi’s FRANTIC. There’s even a bit of Philip Glass in the undulating, repeating rhythms of “Prints.”

But don’t begin to think that Alexandre Desplat is a copycat as he deals with a character whose job is to pretend he’s someone else. For like the best students of film music, Desplat takes the styles he’s been so enthused by and makes them his own. Where Ennio was always Ennio, and Herrmann was always Herrmann, what’s made Desplat so remarkably marketable in both Europe and Hollywood is his ability to completely switch musical voices, yet have elements in every score that sharp-eared listeners would pick up on, let alone his many fans. What distinguishes every Desplat score is his remarkable sense of thematic melody, of which GHOST WRITER has in spades. Motifs effortlessly flow through his cues here as one theme picks up on the next, just as one clue leads to the other. They positively prance about for “Investigation,” snake with strings in “Hidden Documents” and tell us the game’s afoot after a dark orchestral start in “PR Paul Emmett.” Finally, the paper trail leads to a marvelously lush reveal in “The Truth About Ruth,” the music a virtual exclamation point to what’s been in front of our ghost writer all along.

It’s that musical abandon that really pricks up your ears. For where many Hollywood suspense scores would be reigned in by pulsing samples, crashing percussion and indistinct melodies in an effort to be hip, THE GHOST WRITER is a film, and score outside of that political system. It’s the kind of independent (and literally locked-down) production that gives Desplat the freedom to compose actual music, notes that aren’t afraid to be big, brash, and most of all eccentric. But as Polanski well knows, having a laugh, and being over the top about very bleak subject matter is often the best way to shine a light on the material. And the satirically sinister tone that he and Desplat give to THE GHOST WRITER raise what could’ve been an average, anonymous read into something fairly remarkable. And once the scandal’s over, there will hopefully be more novels between these two exceptionally well-suited collaborators to come.

Leaf through Desplat’s chapters here

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