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The Ghost Writer

Pierce Brosnan and Ewan Mcgregor in The Ghost Writer.

Spook Story: The Ghost Writer

He has no family, no romantic ties, no apparent aspirations. He doesn’t even seem to have a name: At least he never gives one and no one ever calls him by one. He makes a living writing the memoirs of people too famous to have someone else’s name on their book jackets, and so part of his fee is for remaining silent.

He is the title figure of The Ghost Writer, and because convention requires that we not refer to a character by the name of the actor playing him, in this case Ewan McGregor, there’s little choice but to refer to him as the Ghost.

He’s has a new and very lucrative assignment, to re-write the memoirs of Adam Lang, the former prime minister of Great Britain. Lang could not be more obviously Tony Blair had he been played by Michael Sheen. Instead, and to the film’s great benefit, he is played by Pierce Brosnan with an almost feral edge, though more defensively vicious than cunning.

Lang has plenty to make him unhappy. His assistant, who had already completed a first draft of the memoirs, has been found dead on a beach near the secluded Martha’s Vineyard estate where Lang is presently living. The deadline for the book is in one month. And—oh, bother—the International Criminal Court is about to indict him for war crimes for ordering the extraordinary rendition of four terrorism suspects.

None of this is of much concern to the Ghost, who isn’t interested in politics. (He voted for Lang, but “We all did—it was a craze.”) His only worry is how to reshape that voluminous first draft into something with more reader appeal. He sets about interviewing Lang for personal insight into his early years, but is put on hold when Lang and his staff fly to Washington for damage control about the ICC indictments. That’s when the Ghost starts to follow his curiosity about some loose ends and inconsistencies in his predecessor’s work.

That’s also the point at which The Ghost Writer begins to fall away from what makes it, to that point, such an unusually engrossing entertainment. The film was directed by Roman Polanski, and is as good a display of his talent for paranoid atmosphere as anything he has done since Frantic.

The bulk of the film takes place in Lang’s estate, with northern Germany filling in surprisingly well for the coast of Massachusetts in January. The coldly elegant house with its views of the gray, stormy shore keep us unsettled well before our hero begins to notice anything wrong. We’re equally ahead of him being suspicious of Lang’s inner circle, especially his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his insinuating aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall).

The modern trend for movies is to leave the credits until the end, and a viewer coming across this on television in the future might see it without realizing it was directed by Polanski. They might be better off for that, as well as for watching it without an awareness of Polanski’s current house arrest (the film was shot before he was arrested by the Swiss, but edited in Polanski’s home). It’s too easy to “interpret” parts of the movie based on this, even if some of it seems intentional.

On the other hand, a familiarity with Polanski’s oeuvre will prepare you for what many viewers consider a disappointing denouement. These are people who are watching the movie as a political thriller, which is certainly what it seems to be shaping up as in its first half. (It is based on a novel by Robert Harris, who was expressing his own disenchantment with Tony Blair without apparently having anything real to add to the debate.) There are so many allusions to great improprieties of the past decade that we expect the Ghost’s investigations to continue to open up a world of secrets, both personal and political. It’s what we have come to expect of suspense thrillers like…oh, what’s a good example…Chinatown.

Instead, The Ghost Writer turns out to be a shaggy dog story with bits of dark humor leading back to where we suspected it was going in the first place. Perhaps it’s Polanski’s way of saying that these are all old stories that just get repeated over and over again. As someone nearing 80 who survived the worst of Nazi occupation during the 1940s, he’s allowed that perspective.

Enjoyable but ephemeral, The Ghost Writer is a supremely well-crafted exercise in suspense that may not lead much of anywhere, but has a great deal of fun taking you there.

Watch the trailer for The Ghost Town

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