He has no name, and offers very little with regards to his past. He’s supposed to be a ghost: anonymous, invisible, not really here. But this ghost, brought to an island oppressively cloaked in wintry clouds to infuse some flavour into the insipid memoirs of a former British PM, will be punched, pressed, provoked and prompted to delve deeper into his subject’s past than professional etiquette would have it. Just as the ghost arrives his subject is hurled into a maelstrom of disgrace, accused of handing over terror suspects to the CIA for torture and subpoenaed by the international tribunal in the Hague.
The ways in which The Ghost Writer mirrors real life are numerous. Though the PM is dubbed Alan Lang, this is clearly the next-best thing to an explicit indictment of Tony Blair by Robert Harris, former BBC journalist and author of the source novel. Lang’s disillusioned Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart seems loosely based on the late Robin Cook. There’s a US Secretary of State that so carefully resembles Condoleezza Rice as to almost be camp. And yes, the scenario eerily evokes the ongoing house arrest of director and co-scenarist Roman Polanski. But however tempted one might be to read The Ghost Writer as allegory, the movie demands to be appreciated as exactly what it is, an engrossing, somewhat artificial thriller, realized by Polanski with inspired classical economy. He imbues the whole with characteristic wit, cynicism, and a billowing dread that somehow remains playful.
Look at how Polanski opens the movie: Cars are ushered off the Woods Hole ferry that connects Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang holes up, to mainland Massachusetts. But one car seems to have been abandoned. Night falls, and the car is towed away. As gray dawn exhales upon a local beach a body washes up on the shore. The sequence is a shrewd, disarmingly detached vestibule to the main action. No central characters are introduced. Well, not exactly. That body belonged to one Mike McAra, Lang’s former press aide and his first ghost writer. McAra’s ghost will haunt all that proceeds, his nameless replacement retracing his footsteps, recovering his research, even sleeping in his bed. The protagonist lured into assuming the role of someone perished under mysterious circumstances is a theme familiar from some of Polanski’s finest work, most notably The Tenant. It’s a condition to which Polanski displays a unmistakable affinity, one that interrogates the hazy region where free will dissolves into the caprices of merciless destiny. Crucially, the protagonist is neither innocent nor fully cognizant of what sort of trap he’s slipping into. No one’s ever innocent in Polanski, but that doesn’t mean knowledge will save you.
As Lang, Pierce Brosnan is a perfect blend of exhausted diplomacy and draining charm. Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall play Lang’s spouse and secretary, and both, sexy, smart, and a little scary, exude far greater control over Lang’s affairs than Lang himself. As the ghost, Ewan McGregor makes up for the protagonist’s dearth of conventional character development by playing each and every moment as potentially decisive, his actions at once motivated by a fatal curiosity driven by frustrations over a sub-mediocre literary career and the intoxication of letting oneself be dragged under by an overpowering wave. There are pleasingly portentous cameos from Eli Wallach as an old hermit and Tom Wilkinson as a reticent Harvard professor, absently patting the arms of his chair.
Polanski, working mostly on a German soundstage, handles everything with supreme confidence, unconcerned with the scattered holes in Harris’ labyrinthine plot and staging minor key set-pieces with bold efficacy, including a clever use of GPS that Hitchcock would surely have appreciated and a final, brilliantly staged single shot so chilling that Hitchcock would never have been allowed to end a movie thus in his Hollywood heyday.