Overcast skies and drab blue/gray interiors dominate Roman Polanski’s smart, tense thriller “The Ghost Writer,” setting up a foreboding mood that never lets up, even when it finally seems that all of its mysteries are resolved. (They’re not.)
Based on Robert Harris’ 2007 novel “The Ghost,” Polanski’s film is a modern lesson in expertly controlled tension. The title character (whose name is never revealed and is played by Ewan McGregor) racks up such an enormous series of bad decisions that his situation becomes all too plausible. Maybe he is too focused on his task–re-writing the memoirs of an embattled former British Prime Minister named Adam Lang and played by Pierce Brosnan. For a writer, though, he has an astounding inability to see the writing on the wall.
Lang is the most dangerous kind of politician–one who has mastered image management but none of the subtleties of governance. His book is a perfect example of his shallowness. Each story is a carefully remembered and rehearsed anecdote bent on propping up the world leader’s status as an important historical figure, with none of the personal insight that makes an autobiography interesting. His ghostwriter has that unenviable task, made even more unenviable by the fact that the man who tried before him may have committed suicide.
Brosnan–perfect in the role–is all charm, but with an undercurrent of rage that’s let loose at the slightest suggestion that beneath his chiseled exterior, things are not precisely as he would have you believe. Lang is a very thinly veiled swipe at Tony Blair, whose recent present-day troubles echo his doppleganger’s. Seen as a yes man for the U.S., one former cohort in the British government suggests Lang be turned over to the International Criminal Court for handing terror suspects to the C.I.A. to be tortured.
One of the most fascinating elements of “The Ghost Writer” is the behind-the-scenes mechanism of a very public figure. Surrounded by a team of security and PR people, Lang and his cynical, hard-nosed wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) are mice scurrying around in a hard-angled glass cage. Their modern beach house at rainy and gloomy Martha’s Vineyard turns into a press hotspot and suspicion is directed all of Lang’s employees, including curvy blonde aide Ameila (Kim Cattrall), with whom the former PM is having an affair.
Somewhere around the time that the ghostwriter offers his help drafting a public response for Lang and Amelia informs him that his is now “an accomplice,” things start to turn sinister. There are mysterious clues left by the dead ghostwriter, black cars following McGregor everywhere, and a general paranoia creeping in.
Polanski is a master of mood and pacing. “The Ghost Writer” moves forward at an assured pace and sprinkles in an acerbic sense of humor, mostly from Ruth’s loathing and Lang’s increasingly dangerous transparency. Brosnan and Williams steal the show from McGregor, but that’s kind of the point.
As The Ghost, McGregor is the stand-in for the audience, drawn in over his head and struggling to figure out the high stakes world of political intrigue. It’s only fitting that he remain a bit of a blank slate.
The fixed-frame last shot of the movie is memorable in an late 60s/early 70s kind of way, when auteurs like Polanski were experimenting with artful ways to tell suspense stories. Although “The Ghost Writer” is more traditional in its storytelling than his early masterpieces like “Rosemary’s Baby” or”Knife in the Water,” the man hasn’t lost any of his ability to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.
If you’re looking for comparisons between this film and the real-life Polanski controversy, that’s easy to do as well. After all, the plot is essentially about a man exiled overseas by a hot-button political issue of his own making. It should be noted that the director spares Brosnan’s character little sympathy and no easy way out.