The Ghost Writer
- Directed by Roman Polanski
- Written by Roman Polanski and Robert Harris
- Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams
- Classification: PG
Few will mistake The Ghost Writer for one of Roman Polanski's best films. But even second-tier Polanski is worth a first look, and all his trademark themes - murder and menace, exile and isolation, abundant intrigue coupled to limited understanding - are fully on display here, along with that unnervingly cold intelligence. What isn't is his usual pacing and flair for suspense. The result is a political thriller refreshingly long on grown-up dialogue yet lamentably shy on, well, thrills. This chatty thing does go on.
As it does, most of the violence occurs quite deliberately off-screen - its perpetrators are insulated from the havoc they wreak. So we don't see the death implied in the opening sequence, but only witness the consequence: Since the ghost writer of a political memoir has popped off in mid-task, a replacement is needed. Cut to a fascinating scene of power-mongering in a London publishing house, where the fat-wallet Americans run roughshod over their British equivalents, and where a replacement scribe is hired. The new "Ghost" (Ewan McGregor) is pleased with the money but daunted by the job - he's got only a month to finish the book.
The memoirist is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), an ex-British Prime Minister bearing an obvious, if somewhat contrived, resemblance to Tony Blair - his tenure in office was spent cozying up to U.S. foreign policy (the source material is the Robert Harris novel). Now, since the international court in The Hague is accusing him of aiding and abetting torture, Lang has seen fit to remove himself to an island retreat off the coast of Boston. Yes, he's been exiled to America - a plot twist Polanski would surely savour.
So the Ghost flies to the island and its palatial bunker, charged with upgrading Lang's boilerplate prose into something remotely readable. There, he interviews the once-great man himself, finding him to be an unrepentant true-believer in the gospel of anti-terrorism. More surprising is the palpable domestic tension between Lang's cerebral wife, Ruth (a superb Olivia Williams), and his domineering chief-of-staff, Amelia (a miscast Kim Cattrall, whose unidentifiable accent is a bizarre mystery unto itself). Cue the intrigue, as the Ghost discovers anomalies in Lang's account of his political beginnings at Cambridge, and later, cycling through the pathetic fallacy of the island's constant rain, he even starts to question the circumstances of his predecessor's demise. Oh, a storm is brewing.
Cue the chatter too, lots of it. When the dialogue is sharp and caustic - and the frustrated, seductive Ruth benefits from the lioness's share of these verbal morsels - the picture gathers momentum. But when the talk is simply expository, dredging up familiar bugaboos like the ever-nefarious CIA and a Halliburton-style conglomerate that dresses up greed as ideology, the momentum dissipates, the scenes grow windy, and the movie stalls. And remains stalled, until the climax pushes the restart button. But, after all that waiting, the ending feels rushed and unearned - too little happens, then far too much.
Like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, McGregor has the role of the blinkered protagonist, in way over his head, knowing more than he should but much less than he needs. This time, though, the script lacks the adroitness to bring the audience up to speed, creating that suspenseful gap between what the hero doesn't know and what we do. To his credit, Polanski doesn't stoop to easy genre clichés, like transforming a mere scribbler into a macho firebrand blasting his way out of trouble. But avoiding clichés is one thing; finding effective replacements is quite another.
Yes, true to his character, the Ghost stays thin and spectral. Unfortunately, so does The Ghost Writer - it hovers for a while, flirting with our interest, prodding our fears, then disappears without a trace. Nothing lingers, not even a tremble.