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THE GHOST WRITER – Alexandre Desplat

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s impossible to talk about The Ghost Writer without talking about Roman Polanski. The director of The Ghost Writer and other such excellent films as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist was arrested in Switzerland on 25-year old sexual abuse charges during post-production on this film, and has since become a divisive figure. Whether the scandal and scuttlebutt surrounding Polanski will affect The Ghost Writer’s reception remains to be seen, but the Pole has always been an excellent cinematic mind, and his films continue to impress. As a result of his incarceration, many of the film’s ‘finishing touches’ had to be made without him, including the recording of Alexandre Desplat’s original score for the film; thankfully, despite however you may feel about Polanski and his transgressions, Desplat’s score is yet another strong one.

The Ghost Writer is a political thriller based on a novel by Robert Harris, starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton and Kim Cattrall. Brosnan plays Adam Lang, a former British prime minister, who is writing his memoirs. However, after his first ghost writer is found murdered, the replacement (McGregor) discovers some disturbing truths about Lang’s life in politics, linking him to a number of dark secrets involving torture, terrorism and the CIA, and before long, the new ghostwriter finds himself in genuine danger of suffering the same fate as his predecessor.

The Ghost Writer is Alexandre Desplat’s first score of 2010, but his eleventh in the last two years. Desplat’s rise to the top of the Hollywood composing tree has been stellar to the say the least, but what’s really impressive is how he manages to flit from genre to genre, work with directors as respected as David Fincher, Steven Frears, Jacques Audiard and now Polanski, and write score after score of wonderful music that is unique and appropriate to the project, but which always sounds like a Desplat score. He is quickly becoming my favorite working composer, and The Ghost Writer continues his excellent run of creative form.

People tend to forget that, in amongst all his pretty waltzes and romance themes, Desplat is pretty good at scoring suspense too. His work in France on scores such as Nid De Guêpes, Une Chance Sur Deux, L’Ennemi Intime, and last year’s L’Armée du Crime, as well as Hollywood scores like Hostage and Firewall, have more than established his credentials in the genre, and this latest work merely adds to his reputation. The Ghost Writer is a classic suspense score with more than hint of Bernard Herrmann in its makeup, from the prominent use of strings to the film noir sensibilities in the orchestrations, which as always make excellent use of the entire orchestra in atypical settings and creative combinations.

The main theme, “The Ghost Writer”, is an unusual exercise in rhythmic tension, building from a hooting bassoon element, picking up a bed of guttural wavering flutes, and eventually emerging into an unusual staccato theme which uses the entire woodwind section as percussion, and is interjected with a classic suspenseful interlude for strings and glockenspiel. It’s great stuff, intellectually creative, musically interesting, and appropriately dangerous-sounding, considering the film’s subject matter. The theme re-occurs regularly throughout the score, in cues such as “Travel to the Island” and the mesmerizing “Hidden Documents”, and in deconstructed fragmented fashion in virtually every other cue.

The see-sawing motion of the instruments and the constant, nervous plucking is a recurring element of the score, which retains a sense of movement and energy throughout its length. It’s almost as though Desplat’s music is playing a game of hide-and-seek with the listener, never wanting to reveal itself or its full intentions, and that by continually moving, continually shifting around the orchestra it can remain elusive. It’s a clever mirroring of the main character’s diversionary tactics: he is writing a book which tells all, but at the same time is desperately trying to cover things up.

In every cue, Desplat uses his orchestra restlessly. The strings pluck and dance, the woodwinds whoop, the percussion items tap and bubble, the harps and chimes and glockenspiel fade lightly in and out and between them all. Nothing ever comes together in a conventionally harmonious fashion, and this is where the tension comes from. It’s quite excellent how Desplat constantly plays all the instruments off each other constantly, shifting the focus from one section to another. Cues such as “Travel to the Island” see violins temporarily picking up the lead from the endlessly oscillating woodwinds. Later, “Investigation” sees the string, piano and woodwinds leading each other on a merry dance of inquisitive, prancing rhythms.

After a few moments of tense, bubbling build-up, “Chase on the Ferry” explodes into a lavish string-led action sequence of great speed and fury, which should hopefully once and for all dispel the myth that Desplat can’t write action music. Later, cues such as “In the Woods” and “Bicycle Ride” present the main theme in a more dynamic setting with rolling snare drums, bounding timpanis and more prominent brasses giving broad accompaniment to the woodwind eccentricities.

Only in “Lang’s Memoirs”, “Lang and the CIA” and the conclusive “The Truth About Ruth” do we get the briefest moments of more conventional thematic warmth; in these cues Desplat downplays the pizzicato dancing, and instead moves subtle string harmonies and harp solos to the forefront of the mix. However, even here, Desplat steadfastly refuses to bow to convention, instead keeping the audience slightly on edge through his off-kilter harmonies, brooding string textures and scuttling percussive effects.

I know I sound like a broken record when I continually praise every score Desplat writes, but I really and truly believe that his is the freshest and most creative new voice to enter the film music world in years, and that each new score he writes proves further what an astounding talent he is. While I’m sure that parts The Ghost Writer will prove to be slightly on the odd side for listeners with more conservative tastes, I personally thought both the oppressive atmosphere and electric energy Desplat created in the score was masterful, and I recommend it to all who know and enjoy his style.

Rating: ****

Buy the Ghost Writer soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Ghost Writer (1:41)
  • Rhinehart Publishing (0:58)
  • Travel to the Island (2:28)
  • Lang’s Memoirs (1:43)
  • Chase on the Ferry (2:31)
  • Suspicion (2:49)
  • Investigation (2:07)
  • Hidden Documents (2:09)
  • The Old Man (1:17)
  • In the Woods (3:40)
  • Prints (1:45)
  • The Predecessor (2:28)
  • Pr Paul Emmett (5:39)
  • Bicycle Ride (1:52)
  • Lang and the CIA (2:21)
  • The Truth about Ruth (4:55)
  • The Ghost Writer (Reprise) (1:49)

Running Time: 42 minutes 12 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7007 (2010)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Jean-Pascal Beintus and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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