The Ghost Writer opens, appropriately enough given the film’s generally menacing tone, with the death of a ferry passenger. The man’s absence is discovered through the presence of an empty BMW on deck after all the passengers disembark. His body, bloated with liquor and decay, washes up on the beach. Did the poor bastard simply get soused and totter off a slippery deck? In a Roman Polanski movie? Not bloody likely.
The Ghost Writer, adapted by Polanski and Robert Harris from the latter’s novel, is a conventional but well-controlled example of the paranoia/conspiracy thriller. As such, it throws its unnamed protagonist (played by Ewan McGregor as a soft-spoken, moderately earnest blank) into an increasingly dicey situation. The drowned man was Mike McAra, a ghost writer who had been working with former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) as an uncredited ghost writer on the latter’s autiobiography. Lang’s publisher immediately hires McGregor’s character, credited by the filmmakers as “The Ghost,” to infuse the drab memoirs with “heart.”
As soon as The Ghost shows up at the Lang retreat on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, reluctant to spend the next month in a manuscript-overhauling retreat but tantalized by the promise of a quarter-million-dollar payout, former associates of Lang create an international incident by accusing the former prime minister of secretly kidnapping prisoners for illegal torture during the Bush war on terror. And that’s the fulcrum on which this film pivots. As protestors and news reporters descend on the Lang compound, a moral choice is forced upon The Ghost. Does he abandon this new and highly lucrative assignment? Or does he willingly continue to work for a war criminal?
Harris’s original story is bolstered with sexual intrigue — Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), is attracted to The Ghost, presumably in part because her husband is carrying on with an assistant named Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) — but Polanski seems barely interested in that stuff. (Despite the hoped-for appearance of McGregor’s bare ass, too long absent from the screen, the film’s requisite bedroom scene is about as sexy as a mouthful of dust.)
Instead, he seems alternately amused and enraged by the predicament facing Lang, a suave but resolutely uncommitted politico. In one of the film’s jabs at U.S. foreign policy, Lang is warned that he can’t return home because, unlike the U.S., Great Britain would hand Lang over to the International Criminal Court in Geneva. Polanski can’t resist letting one of the supporting players rattle off a short list of other countries that don’t recognize the ICC — those countries include India, Indonesia, China, and parts of Africa — but the subtext feels personal, as well as political. Like Adam Lang, Polanski has long avoided travel to countries where he has, well, let’s call it unfinished business.
Brosnan gives a strong performance. His former prime minister is a dashing shell of a man. He’s a figurehead wearing nice clothes and commanding a surfeit of gruff charm and intelligence but bearing little passion for policy. His portrayal is robust and generous, which is a good thing since the source material constitutes a very thinly veiled frontal assault on Tony Blair. I have no idea whether Harris believes that Blair was carrying on with his mistress in full view of a frustrated and angry wife, but the key question here — the central joke, really — has to do with why on earth this affable politician would be the only world leader of consequence to fall in lockstep with a U.S. agenda in the Middle East.
As The Ghost learns more about Adam Lang, he becomes consumed by the question. He finds a cache of apparently innocuous photographs that turn out to be incriminating evidence and discusses them with Ruth. He tracks down an old college buddy of Lang’s (Tom Wilkinson in fine form) and starts asking too-pointed questions. He lays his cards on the table with little apparent thought of the resulting peril to his life and limb. In short, he does everything investigative busybodies inhabiting this kind of movie do with little thought of the consequences. There’s even a scene that’s long on verisimilitude but short on anything resembling pizazz that has The Ghost scrolling through pages of Google search results, trying to trace Lang’s untold political narrative back to the 1970s. It made me long for the days when directors would send the male leads of their suspense movies to the library to squint at bound magazine volumes and microfiche, or to the morgue at the local newspaper to talk their way into some serious back-issue perusal, rather than having them hunch over a crappy little laptop, never having left their poorly lit studies.
Too many scenes here are a bit perfunctory, but they’re balanced out well enough by the occasional directorial flourish or long moment of nicely sustained tension. When The Ghost ends up driving the same BMW that we saw recovered in the film’s opening sequence, its GPS chirping urgently, "turn around when possible," the sense of menace is ratcheted up subtly. The implicit suggestion is that he may as well be rolling down the road in a mobile coffin. Everything becomes sinister. One of my favorite scenes in the whole film has The Ghost, holed up in a tiny hotel room after missing the last ferry back to the island, nervously answering a knock at the door. Is it friend or foe? The man’s deadpan, vaguely threatening demeanor offers neither clue nor comfort, but the timing of his appearance, coupled with McGregor’s expertly hapless anxiousness, is spot-on. As a result, this potentially disastrous encounter offers up what may be the funniest moment in the whole damn movie. It’s the closest Polanski gets to a real Hitchcock moment.
Cinematographer Pawel Edelman does his typically downbeat work here, finding a slick 21st-century counterpart to film noir that deals in shadowy, detailed imagery and largely chilly chromatics. Some shots have an edgy, unnatural sharpness that was likely heightened in the digital intermediate process. As the film draws toward its conclusion, The Ghost finally puts the last piece of the puzzle into place, and Polanski underscores that final revelation with a wry visual fillip. The scene takes place in a cluttered storeroom, and in a shot with the camera low, looking up at McGregor's face, a pile of three ticket rolls is visible over his right shoulder. Each is one of three different colors: red, white and blue. These props are placed in a background corner of the frame where the national symbolism is easy to miss. But it helps crystallize the film's themes of paranoia and political influence, not to mention its fairly comprehensive demonization of the U.S., while keeping tongue tucked in cheek. In The Ghost Writer's world, you might think you're alone with your thoughts. But in reality, Old Glory is lurking right over your shoulder.