The Ghost Writer

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The unfortunate death of his friend, aide and author working on his memoirs, former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) needs to find a replacement to complete his manuscript. An unnamed hotshot writer (Ewan McGregor) accepts the assignment but, during the subsequent weeks, he uncovers corruption, international intrigue and charges of torture and murder at the highest government levels in “The Ghost Writer.”

Roman Polanski has had a long and controversial life, both as maestro filmmaker and in his highly public private life. The exile from America makes a thriller that is placed smack dab where he cannot go – Martha’s Vineyard USA. He and co-scripter Robert Harris (adapting Harris’s novel The Ghost) put together a good, but not great thriller that twists and turns in the intrigue as The Ghost Writer (as McGregor’s character is addressed throughout the film), who thinks, at first, that the assignment is a lark and an easy $250K for a month’s work. He does not know it, but the Ghost is about to fall into a quagmire of murder, intrigue and conspiracy.

Ewan McGregor gives one of the best performances he has had in years and is the glue that holds “The Ghost Writer” together. The Ghost is talented, smart and inquisitive enough to smell a rat in the Adam Lang political household. He learns that Lang started out, in college years before, as dramatics major. So why, the Writer thinks, would an actor turn to politics. Lang explains that he became a political activist because of his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams giving a fine performance), whom he says sparked his interest. As the Ghost uncovers more and more evidence of malfeasance and lies, he seeks help from supposedly trusted sources. The lesson The Ghost Writer soon learns is, trust no one.

The all-star supporting cast includes Brosnan and Williams, Kim Cattrall as Lang’s loyal assistant (two –dimensional) and a bevy of character actors: James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson and Eli Wallach lead the huge cast. Most of the roles are underwritten and the actors given little time or chance to develop their characters. Techs are good but, again, not great.

You know that, with more and more mystery surrounding the death of Lang’s aide, that something is amiss. Toss in the war crimes accusations hurled at the former PM for aiding and abetting the secret arrests of suspected terrorists and their illegal torture (by the CIA, of course). Add a dose of an American mega-corporation Hatherton (get it?), recruiting of foreign nationals and conspiring to influence British government policies and you get a kitchen sink movie that keeps hitting you from different directions. As such, it is not a delicate and clean weaving of film fabric. This is more like a patchwork quilt. I give it a B.

When the man working with Britain's last prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, "Mamma Mia!"), on his memoirs commits suicide, book agent Rick Ricardelli (Jon Bernthal, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian's" Al Capone) swoops in to get his client, who has no political writing experience, a quarter of a million dollar payday.  Convinced the man might bring a fresh perspective to the book, publisher John Maddox (James Belushi, TV's "According to Jim") gives the OK - and a tight one month deadline - to "The Ghost Writer."

Cowriter (with Robert Harris ("Fatherland," "Enigma"), adapting his own novel)/director Roman Polanski returns to the big screen after a five year hiatus and has won the Best Director prize at last month's Berlin Film Festival for his latest, a slick political thriller which suffers from a climax which hopes to shock in order to distract from its rigging and German locations which look nothing like the New England ones they're standing in for.  Still, it's a pleasure to see Ewan McGregor act again after a series of misfires ("The Men Who Star at Goats," "Amelia") and although the film's locations are suspect, the overall production, capped by an Alexander Desplat score that recalls "North by Northwest," has Hitchcockian pleasures.

These begin with the humorous signposts that greet The Ghost as he journeys to Lang's seaside home.  At the airport, he's informed of an elevated security alert (as well as a breaking news report that the ex-PM has been accused of illegally handing over suspected Pakistani terrorists for CIA torture).  On the ferry, a sign warns of a recent fatal incident (his predecessor Mike McAra's drowning), and at the gates to the ex-prime minister's compound, his car is swept for bombs. He's greeted by the sleek and sexy assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall, "Sex and the City"), who arranges for him to begin reading the top secret manuscript (it's kept under lock and key and cannot leave the premises) before he meets his subject.  Lang's office has a floor to ceiling window looking out over grassy dunes which is architecturally transparent, giving the illusion of one of those old false looking Hitchcock backdrops.

Lang, who is obviously based on Tony Blair, turns out to be down-to-earth but distracted by his current conundrum. His wife Ruth (Olivia Williams, "An Education"), however is altogether a different story.  The outspoken politician's wife makes it clear that she is unhappy about having her husband's mistress (Amelia) in close quarters.  She also appears to take a keen interest in the ghost and his whereabouts.  As she should, because the ghost has begun to suspect that McAra may not have had an accident at all, suspicions which grow deeper when he finds evidence linking Lang to a Harvard University professor, Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, "Duplicity," "44 Inch Chest"), with suspected ties to the C.I.A. in McAra's room.  He decides to retrace McAra's route on the day he died and visits Emmett, who is not exactly glad to see him and whose wife disappears to report the ghost's presence to someone via telephone.

And again, locations are poorly chosen.  Having grown up in towns bordering Belmont, MA, home of Professor Emmett, I can state that there are no parts of the town that resemble this heavily wooded outpost.  But, of course, these things should only prove a distraction to those familiar with the areas.  McGregor is quite compelling as a man assuming the mantle of a dead man, then following his clues to a startling conclusion. Even better is Williams as the Cherie Blair substitute with a secret - she's forthright and obviously intelligent and grieving for her marriage and perhaps manipulating things behind the scenes and the actress is able to suggest and display all of these things.  Cattrall is tasked with just the opposite as an insider who may not be privy to as much as we might think.  Brosnan is perfect as the common man's PM now suspected of playing more back room politics than once thought (he arrives on a private plane marked Hatherton, clearly a jibe at Halliburton), but it's the two women who have more screen time and who influence the film's tone more.   Wilkinson is amusingly arrogant and aggravated as the Harvard professor.

Cinematographer Pawel Edelman's ("The Pianist") cast scenes both seaside and city center in rain-washed steely blues, all wrong for Martha's Vineyard but nonetheless casting a gloomy mood that suits the film.  The same can be said for production design and art direction - that manse by the sea is clearly more European in sensibility in both design and interior art works and furnishings, yet it fits the material.  But it is the material that ultimately lets Polanski down.  While his style is certainly evident, the film's climax relies entirely on coincidence and, even worse, a character having knowledge that, while not understood until interpreted by the ghost, would never have been divulged, certainly not as an explanation as to why McAra's original manuscript had been deemed Top Secret.  This is followed by a final, tastefully delivered jolt, which also feels speedily constructed.  In nit-picking vein, there are a couple of technical letdowns - one, an early scene in a diner, features extras so vivacious they draw one's eye from the main action; in another, jerky focus pulling calls attention to itself.  Minor quibbles, but not ones one expects to see in a Polanski film.

"The Ghost Writer" is no Polanski masterpiece like "Rosemary's Baby" or "Chinatown," but it's better than more recent efforts like "Frantic."  It's a solid adult political thriller.

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