CD Review: The Ghost Writer

As a writer, I had an obvious interest in Roman Polanski’s latest, THE GHOST WRITER. The other main reason to see the film was Alexandre Desplat‘s score. From his early films with Krzysztof Komeda, Polanski has always taken a unique approach to scoring his films. And Desplat’s presence is no exception. I was curious to see and hear how he would score the story of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) writing the memoirs of ex-British Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan, who becomes embroiled in the politician’s political problems when he is accused of war crimes.

Desplat is one of the strongest contemporary composers working in film. Few composers can convey so much with so few instruments, and his trademark delicate orchestrations are on display in this new score as well. Though Desplat’s music can occasionally take on a quality of sameness (due mostly likely to a case of over-exposure the last couple of years rather than lack of talent), his music is always intelligent and compelling. And so too is THE GHOST WRITER.

The score begins with an instrument that rarely gets to shine: the bass clarinet. Its staccato ostinato in the accompaniment falls on the ear like the relentless raindrops that fall through much of the film. It underscores the main theme, a creepy melody that, when played on “singing flutes,” sounds like the fog horn of the ferry that plays such a prominent role in the story. The muted trumpet also adds its staccato punctuation before the strings soar high above with sustained notes.

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Click Track: The Ghost Writer

Lighter music inhabits the offices of “Rhinehart Publishing” and the true beauty of Desplat’s harmonies can be heard in the sustained strings of “Lang’s Memoirs.” “Suspicion” takes on a Herrmann-esque quality with its quiet strings, glockenspiel, and short rhythmic motifs. In the climactic “The Truth About Ruth,” Desplat brings all the elements of the score together in a sweeping 5-minute cue. As the camera swirls around the launch party for Lang’s (Brosnan) memoirs, Desplat ties together the musical threads as the story moves towards the inevitable and shocking conclusion that I should have seen coming.

My favorite cue is the exciting “Chase on the Ferry.” Here, Desplat uses simple repeated 16th notes in the strings, swelling chords, subtle heartbeats in the percussion, a sustained crescendo, and short rhythmic figures to convey the mounting terror of McGregor’s “Ghost” as his life is once again threatened, this time aboard the claustrophobic vessel.

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Click Track: Chase on the Ferry

The film is missing a certain gravitas and that light touch is only amplified by Desplat’s music. But perhaps the problem is in the script. Either way, I was never bored and the combination of film and score make an interesting pair, far above the average fare we’re forced to see and hear at the multiplex. As with most of Deplat’s music, the score is best listened to on headphones to capture the nuances in orchestration. Visit the Varese Sarabande site to hear more audio samples and to order the CD.

I enjoyed the score from the moment I unwrapped the cellophane and my enjoyment has only increased on subsequent listens. THE GHOST WRITER is an early candidate for my top 10 scores of the year.

Film Score Click Track [rating:4.5/5]

11 comments

  1. There’s something incredibly attractive about Desplat’s music, the way he keeps it beautifully emotionally without getting overly saccharine, and supported by rich orchestrations. Lovely score, can’t wait for what he comes up with for the Harry Potter movie.

    1. You hit the nail on the head: emotional without getting saccharine. And, yes, I’m looking forward to his Harry Potter score as well.

  2. A wonderful score. And Chase on the Ferry is a definite highlight. Even hearing it for the first time in the theatre, I got chills. Desplat’s approach is thrillingly bold.

    1. Hi Tim. Sorry I missed your comment a few days ago. I agree that Desplat’s approach is a bold one, not necessarily in terms of orchestration, but that’s what makes this score unique. You may have been talking about the “Chase on the Ferry” cue though. In that case, it IS definitely bold.

      1. I guess I was referring mostly to Chase on the Ferry, but his scores are usually bold in that he’s not afraid to let the music stand out, even though it’s usually relatively gentle and delicate. I think this is true also of The Queen and Lust, Caution.

  3. It’s a haunting melody that opening to the film score. Just sticks in my brain. ties in beautifully with the grey, windswept, rain-drenched opening scenes. Love it!

    1. Hi Dave, thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree that those opening scenes with the rain and the music tie together perfectly. Polanski sure knows how to set a mood.

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