The opening images of Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer are, on their face, fairly mundane; a ferry docks, and the cars drive off, but one of them has been abandoned. A tow truck comes to remove the vehicle. That's pretty much the opening scene (not exactly Hitchcock, is it?), but Polanski shoots it with such verve and skill, we can't help but be intrigued. And then we have the payoff shot: a body, washed up on the beach.
That is the body of a close adviser to former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who was helping the politico write his memoirs. Lang's publisher, frantic to protect their $10 million investment, seeks out a ghost writer to finish the job, and in a hurry. Ewan McGregor plays the writer (never named), who is quickly spirited off to Lang's Massachusetts beach house in the dead of winter to interview Lang and flesh out the dull manuscript. "All the words are there," he says of the book, "they're just in the wrong order."
But there are sinister things happening at the beach house--security seems too tight, something seems a bit off. Lang is fiercely protected by an assistant (Kim Cattrall) who everyone seems to know is his mistress, including his wife (Olivia Williams). Not long after the writer arrives, a scandal explodes: a former subordinate accuses the PM of authorizing the torture of four terror suspects, one of whom died in the process. The writer stumbles upon some of the deceased advisor's notes, and discovers that Lang may have even more to hide.
The Ghost Writer is a throwback to the good old-fashioned potboilers of the 1950s, when skilled studio directors made pictures that functioned on a base, surface level as thrillers or mysteries, while smuggling in all kinds of interesting subtext. Lang is clearly modeled after Tony Blair, specifically in his support for questionable American tactics in the war on terror (he's seen on CNN at one point with the secretary of state, a dead ringer for Condi Rice), which benefit a private company called "Hatherton" (hey, it's not as obvious as "Harriburton" in District 13: Ultimatum). But Lang isn't written as an empty Blair photocopy; he's a complex, fascinating character, charismatic and affable one moment, tempermental and prickly the next (Brosnan's performance is another in a steady stream of well-drawn post-Bond character roles).
Blair isn't the only public figure that the film calls to mind. As the torture accusations become a media sensation, the picture draws out some peculiar (though accidental) parallels to the troubles of its director, who was finally incarcerated for his decades-old crimes while the picture was in post-production; one can't help but blanche as Lang and his advisors try to determine which countries will provide him a safe haven. But the film's most interesting theme lies in the simplicity of the McGregor character; he is called "The Ghost" (by his employers, and in the closing credits), but the name takes on multiple meanings. In many ways, he begins to function as the ghost of his departed predecessor--finishing the investigation which that man started, piecing together clues and connecting dots.
His curiosity leads him further into Lang's past, a trail which winds past Eli Wallach (in a wonderful walk-on) to the door of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, that master of smug malice). They have one of those encounters where everything one man says is clearly a lie, and when he is called on it, he produces another lie to explain that one, and does it without batting an eye. But he's clearly up to something, and the sequence that follows (a tense encounter on a returning ferry) confirms that, even after a decade spent on historical dramas and literary adaptations, Polanski still knows how to put together a scene of crackerjack suspense. The film also has an admirable dry wit (observing the dull beach town, McGregor observes, "This place really comes alive at night") and some marvelous performances (some of them unexpected--yes, that really is James Belushi, owning an early scene as a gruff publisher).
The master filmmaker's control and confidence help us overlook some of the film's flaws--there is an undeniable drag to the second act, and he fumbles some of the exposition (we're not sure, for entirely too long, who picks up the other end of a key telephone call). The use of obvious ADR to change some of Brosnan's rougher profanities (he says "sod 'em," but his lips are clearly mouthing "fuck 'em") is distracting and unnecessary--did anyone involved in the picture really think that the PG-13 rating was going to put the teen audience into seats? Ah, well. The Ghost Writer is a crisp and intelligent thriller, carried off with silky panache by its smooth, skillful director. And that closing shot is sheer perfection.