In Roman Polanski’s tense thriller The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor’s unnamed title role introduces himself to former English Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) by saying, “I’m your ghost.” No undead specter, McGregor’s soft-spoken author merely intends to brush up Lang’s memoirs for publication following the death of his original ghostwriter. When the pen-for-hire discovers the possibility of skeletons in Lang’s closet, he becomes a metaphorical spirit who haunts Lang’s home and history with the hope of revealing the truth.
Clearly patterned after England’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lang turns out to be a similar “ghost” to Polanski himself. Dogged by accusations of war crimes, Lang lives in a media fishbowl, stalked by protesters and paparazzi, with the very real possibility of arrest if he visits the wrong country. Polanski has lived a comparable life for more than three decades since he fled sentencing for his 1977 sex crime. The parallel proves particularly striking given Polanski’s Swiss arrest on Sept. 26, 2009 (when The Ghost Writer was in post-production), reigniting the debate over the director’s case. The director’s life experience no doubt informed the besieged scenes of Lang and his entourage holed up in a luxurious but bunker-like mansion on an isle off the coast of New England.
Audiences shouldn’t spend too much time reading The Ghost Writer as a roman à clef (no pun intended). Lang remains too elusive, his misdeeds and motivations too enigmatic, to serve as the director’s surrogate. Instead, Polanski places the viewer’s empathy with McGregor’s ghostwriter, who discovers that a brief, lucrative rewrite job could place him in far more jeopardy than he imagined. The film offers a compelling portrait of a world leader out of power, but less resembles Frost/Nixon than the paranoia-fueled suspense films of the 1970s like The Parallax View.
Coming off a series of dull roles in films such as Amelia, McGregor expertly ensares us in the writer’s sense of unease. From the beginning, he’s uncomfortable with the assignment. The situation pushes him further from his comfort zone and he wonders whether Lang’s staff and security detail consider him an ally or an enemy. The Ghost Writer can remind audiences repulsed by Polanski’s illegal activities that as a filmmaker, he’s a legitimate heir to Alfred Hitchcock, particularly in his fluid command of camera movement and the interplay of silence and music. Through long, quiet passages, we share the writer’s sense of unidentified wrongdoing, or his awareness that people just out of earshot are talking about him.
Brosnan captures a politician’s false bonhomie, sense of entitlement, and flashes of temper, so it’s a minor letdown that Lang spends much of the film off camera. The Ghost Writer’s revelation is Olivia Williams as Lang’s brooding wife, Ruth, who frequently roams the overcast shores in a hooded cloak, like an accusatory figure from a gothic novel. Her scenes contain even more tension and mystery than those with Lang, particularly given Ruth’s palpable bitterness: Does she regret spending a life in her husband’s shadow, or bear deeper wounds from his behavior as a husband? All the actors deliver superb performances, from Lang’s dangerous-looking bodyguards to bored service industry workers to Jim Belushi, of all people, as a bald publishing magnate.
Disappointment and anger at Tony Blair’s foreign policy, particularly involving the United States and the Iraq War, fueled Robert Harris’ original novel, The Ghost. Polanski co-wrote the script with Harris and includes harsh criticisms of torture, extraordinary rendition and a Halliburton-esque corporation. Compared to the book, however, Polanski seems less interested in scoring political points than gradually cultivating a sense of dread. The Ghost Writer makes a virtue of ambiguity, given that we don’t always know who’s a reliable witness or whether a murderous conspiracy even exists. If not as substantial as Polanski’s greatest films, The Ghost Writer can still make you fear things you don’t believe in.