The Ghost Writer, even if the mystery at its heart is somewhat inert. Based on a novel by Robert Harris, the film benefits from recent revelations about Britain’s involvement with CIA terrorist interrogations.
Ewan McGregor plays a professional ghostwriter (never named) who is hired to finish the autobiography of a Tony Blair-like former prime minister. Already over his head, the ghostwriter has no idea how much worse the job will get. Britain’s former golden boy, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, in a richly layered performance), is being investigated for “war crimes,” after allegedly having permitted British citizens to be tortured by the CIA. Oh, and the previous ghostwriter was found washed up on the shore after supposedly committing suicide.
The prime minister’s compound on Martha’s Vineyard is a hotbed of intrigue, from a manuscript kept under lock and key, an overly attentive assistant (played by Kim Cattrall) and Lang’s unhappy wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams from The Sixth Sense). It doesn’t take McGregor's character long to uncover conspiracies everywhere. Outside the gates, protesters demand Lang’s head on a platter, while inside, “the ghost” wonders if he’s about to lose his head for uncovering too many secrets. He’s unable to stop digging, though, leading to some cool plot twists and a bang-up ending.
Polanski infuses the film with politics and Alexandre Desplat fills the film with a rich Bernard Hermann-like score that plays up its resemblance to Hitchcock’s best thrillers. You can’t help but notice the parallels between the exiled Lang and the exiled Polanski, both men unrepentant about the crimes they committed. Sadness and fury hang over Lang, and you wonder whether the same hang over Polanski as well.
The cast, including Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton and Eli Wallach, are all great, although casting Cattrall seems odd among all the real Brits (and her accent is just short of working). Williams, McGregor and Brosnan rule the film, and their scenes are riveting.
Strangely, the mystery of “what Lang knew when” regarding Iraqi War detainees left me cold; maybe the fact that Bush, Cheney and company were so much worse makes Lang’s actions seem too tame to care about. Nevertheless, Polanski’s film looks amazing, and it’s hard to believe that it was filmed in Germany rather than in Cape Cod and London. It’s a thriller for adults that almost works.
UPDATE: The Ghost Writer is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.