Film : From Rose Styron to Roman Polanski
It seems an unlikely connect-the-dots path that links writer, Harvard educator, and Vineyard Haven resident Rose Styron with the infamous Academy Award-winning filmmaker and fugitive Roman Polanski, currently under house arrest in his chalet in Gstaad while the Swiss ministry of justice considers whether to allow extradition to the United States for the 1977 drugging and sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl.
Their degrees of separation involve a person - British novelist Robert Harris, whose 2007 book "The Ghost" is the source for Polanski's just released, faithful film version of the political thriller, called "The Ghost Writer" - and a place, Martha's Vineyard, the setting for both the novel, where it's described in detail, and the film, where it remains obscure.
It was in November 2006 when Ms. Styron received a call from her literary agent Michael Carlisle asking if she would be willing to have lunch with a British client of his, Robert Harris, best-selling author ("Fatherland," "Pompei"), and friend of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Harris was staying at The Harbor View in Edgartown, and needed someone to show him around the Island. Joined by her friends Lucy Hackney and Tess Bramhall, the women planned an itinerary that included places such as a The Trustees and Reservation beach and Seven Gates in West Tisbury.
But the novelist had other ideas. "He said, 'Oh, no, no, no. That's not what I want to see,'" Ms. Styron recalls. "'Where's Robert McNamara's house?'"
It was the house that Mr. McNamara (Secretary of Defense 1961-1968) lent to the Clintons during their first visit. The novelist explained he was looking for the sort of home affluent summer Islanders might own - the house where in the deserted off-season, amid intrigue and possible murder, his character Adam Lang, patterned after his friend Tony Blair (played by Pierce Brosnan), and his ghostwriter (played by Ewan McGregor) would seek refuge to work on the memoir.
To the novelist's delight, Ms. Styron wound up at the home of Mimi and the late Peter Haas. In Mr. Harris's book he describes the long rutted driveway, complete with a dead skunk and mile after mile of ash-colored scrub oaks. The compound: stately, weathered gray, complete with a sentry. Taking dramatic license, Mr. Harris writes, "It all resembled a holiday home designed by Albert Speer..."
The plot, revolving around the intrigues of the Bush/Blair collaboration in Iraq, gets more complicated after the first ghostwriter, a Mr. McAra (sounds a bit like McNamara), takes a suspicious and fatal dive off the ferry. (In September, 1972, a West Tisbury anti-Viet Nam war activist attempted to throw Robert McNamara off the Islander.) The new ghostwriter gets mugged, discovers discrepancies in Lang's official life story, and is then forced to deal with a crisis: the former Prime Minister Lang is accused of turning suspected terrorists over to the CIA for torture. The publicity conscious publisher insists the memoir become a quickly turned out account of the war on terror, and Lang (much like Polanski) faces the possibility of being forced to become an expatriate.
Most of the Island scenes in the film are interiors, but the novel describes a winter-desolate Edgartown, its harbor, the ferry crossings, the captain's houses, and name drops Island locations such as Uncle Seth's Pond. Mr. Harris was paying attention.
Since it is illegal for the 76-year-old Polanski ("The Pianist," "Rosemary's Baby") to travel to Great Britain or the United States, the film was shot in Berlin in winter on the Island of Sylt in the North Sea. Polanski relied on Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with him, for descriptions of the somber vistas that add to the tension of the film.
Ms. Styron recalls, "In December, the house was boarded up of course, and all weathered gray, the garden was totally gray with no color whatsoever."
With her help, Mr. Harris arranged to walk through the interior of the Haas house, which was boarded up with furniture draped for the Island winter. In a surprising coincidence he discovered the only spot of color on a bookshelf in Mr. Haas's library. It was the bright orange book jacket of "Pompei," Mr. Harris's 2003 best-selling novel.
This past Saturday in Berlin, "The Ghost Writer," which opened to favorable reviews, earned Polanski the International Film Festival award for Best Director.
Its cast, all credited with strong performances, includes Olivia Williams as the ex-Prime Minister's manipulative wife; Tom Wilkinson, a Harvard professor and possible CIA link; Kim Cattrall as Lang's too-close-for-comfort assistant; Eli Wallach; James Belushi; and Timothy Hutton. Ewan McGregor's role - he's known only as the Ghost - was first assigned to Nicolas Cage.
The film has plot twists, suspenseful moments, a well-crafted menacing mood and polished look - a true thriller in the best Polanski tradition.