There are plenty of old sayings about stepping into a dead man's shoes, but what about taking over a dead man's word processor? That's what Ewan McGregor has going on in Roman Polanski's new film The Ghost Writer. A political aide has washed up on a beach on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, leaving the memoir of England's ex-Prime Minister incomplete. Ewan is flown in to clean up the text ASAP. He's a nameless figure, only referred to as "The Ghost." He is the echo of the deceased, a shadow of the living.
Things get more complicated the moment the writer touches down at the compound of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The man who was once at the forefront of the British government and a face for the War on Terror was recently discovered to have authorized extraordinary rendition and torture. There are protests outside his estate and the International Criminal Court in the Hague is threatening to charge him with war crimes. This leaves little time for his book, and thus gives the Ghost too much time to dig around. Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is starting to feel that her husband isn't listening to her, and his newish assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall) is obsessed with keeping the incomplete manuscript under lock and key. Everyone says the book is what killed the last guy, and when the Ghost finds a cache of documents and photos in his old room, he starts to realize the rumormongers don't know how right they are.
Adapted by Robert Harris (Enigma) and Roman Polanski from a novel by Harris, The Ghost Writer is the kind of political thriller that hits the ground running. It opens with a dead body, and five minutes don't pass in the film where another knot isn't added to the gnarled narrative. It's a timely production, looking back in history only a short while even if no real names are used. The side remarks about the American President and Vice-President are easy to recognize as referring to Bush and Cheney, and Adam Lang is a thinly disguised version of Tony Blair. There is even an ironic twist to the art imitating life in that once Lang is under suspicion by the World Court, he can't leave America or he'll be arrested. As most folks know, Roman Polanski is currently under house arrest in Switzerland, and since the late 1970s, he hasn't been able to return to America for fear he'd be taken into custody on an old conviction. Thankfully, that's about the only place where The Ghost Writer crosses over with that scandal, and so we can otherwise set it aside.
The pieces of the movie fit together well, and it always held my interest. Though suspicions are cast around, I was left guessing until the very end. The performances are all functional, every actor does his part, with no one really distinguishing themselves above the others. Actually, "functional" is a good word to describe the whole movie. It functions, the engine keeps humming, the machine is always moving forward. This is not necessarily a bad thing, The Ghost Writer is worth the ticket price, but it's kind of a drag that Roman Polanski's first film in five years is one that could have been directed by just about anybody. It's hard to get excited about something this anonymous. Sure, there are some touches of black humor, an underlying predatory sensuality in many of the relationships, and enough fear and mistrust to allow the director to keep his title of the Prince of Paranoia. Polanski does toy with the idea of introducing some horror movie tropes into the proceedings. Out-of-the-way, empty hotels and raging weather and a moody, self-conscious score by Alexandre Desplat (Twilight: New Moon) all lead to the feelings of dread, making us think there might be a killer lurking in every shadow. Except there's not. The Ghost Writer delivers some hardboiled twists, but outside of a couple of harsh scenes in the final act, doesn't otherwise deliver on those grisly threats.
When I recently reviewed Shutter Island, another current film about death lurking in the islands outside the Boston Harbor, I wrote that Martin Scorsese's middling efforts often get judged too harshly just because he's Martin Scorsese, and I am doing the same thing here to Roman Polanski. Were this a new film by some undistinguished filmmaker, rather than the director of Repulsion and Chinatown, all these things would be getting a pass. And even despite rookie mistakes like bad overdubbing and terrible photoshopped props, I'm really giving Polanski a pass here, too. With The Ghost Writer, he's delivered a good movie, just not a great one. Like its unnamed hero, it's an attractive echo of other things, but without anything memorably tangible of its own.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.