Set to a pulsating Alexandre Desplat score, the opening shots of Roman Polanski’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ are of an abandoned car and its former driver, a man by the name of Mike McKaw. Sometime after leaving the car, Mike McKaw died, as the first we see of him is his corpse, washed up on a dark beach. Although dead, we hear a lot about Mike McKaw as the film unfolds. As ghost writer of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs, he was respected and knowledgeable. His replacement –who is also our protagonist – is never given a name. Played by Ewan McGregor, he is credited simply as ‘The Ghost’. He is hired for this delicate task not for his knowledge, talent or personality, but for his speed. The publisher of the memoirs wants the book ready within a month, and out Ghost is known for his quick rewrites. He doesn’t know anything about politics and is in it only for the money. His cluelessness is challenged almost immediately, as he is mugged right after getting the job. Still, he tries to remain oblivious, even though there is a great deal of interest in these memoirs.
He’s not allowed to work at his home- he is flown to the PM’s getaway in Cape Cod, where Mike McKaw’s draft is locked in a safe in the PM’s study. As Lang’s assistant (Kim Cattrall, sporting a now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t English accent) explains, the manuscript mustn’t leave the room. So McGregor goes about his task, interviewing Lang and rewriting Mike McKaw’s 600 page draft into a more accessible and kitschy story. There is little else to do, as Cape Cod seems to be going through the worst off-season ever. It is windy, dreary, eternally overcast. And if that’s not bad enough, the International court has decided to try Lang for war-crimes, filling the island with anti-war protesters and reporters. McGregor is stuck there, along with Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). Ruth is a tough nut to crack. She is alternately supportive and derisive of her husband. She is very interested in McGregor, however, which leads to a predictably messy situation.
As to Lang’s alleged war-crimes…he may be fictional, but his predicament is anything but. He is accused (with the support of members of his cabinet) of sanctioning torture and illegal bomb runs in Afghanistan, in collusion with the US government. ‘The Ghost Writer’ is based on a novel by Robert Harris, a former reporter for the BBC. Harris took his feelings towards Blair –whom he supported until the Iraq war- and used then in this thriller, specifically the notion of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US.
Only the names have been changed, but it ain’t to protect the innocent. The former British government is portrayed as being an American outpost, with ties to the CIA and a big arms manufacturer that begins with the letter ‘H’. When charged with war crimes, Lang goes to Washington for a photo-op with a top government official that looks remarkably like Condoleezza Rice. It gets a bit distracting, as this film is neither satire not reportage. Perhaps the nature of the story changed in adaptation, as Polanski’s takes only a passing interest in the real-life correlation. What this film is is a throw-back to the Nixonian conspiracy thrillers, like ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor’. It’s a capricious bit of fun, an airplane novel of a film.
A detached wryness runs throughout- it never feels like much of substance is at stake. We have a nameless, clueless protagonist who only uncovers the plot by sheer accident (one of the biggest clues he gets as to why the memoirs are so important is by doing a google search). Polanski’s attitude might be gauged from a running gag in the film- at the hideaway, a groundskeeper is seen continuously sweeping leaves and weeds in terrible winds, never achieving anything. This can be seen as an acknowledgment of the futility of a hero’s efforts, typical of these kinds of thrillers, where the enemy is a three-headed beast of government, military and big-business.
This is probably a film for those familiar with the genre and willing to accept variation, as Polanski’s slightly lackadaisical approach is not going to satisfy those looking for a taut thriller that delivers the goods head-on. He willingly loses site of the story at a couple of points, like in one ostensibly pertinent scene with an old man who has information on Mike McKaw’s death. The old man is played by Eli Wallach, and sight of the wonderful actor at 94, still with the twinkle in his eye he’s had since before ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, is entirely distracting, albeit in a very pleasant way. McGregor’s character doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation until well past the half-way point, and even then Polanski only seems kind of interested. He has more fun creating a muted sinister tone in the first half, before all hell breaks loose. Composer Desplat’s score drives the scenes with tense strings and threatening woodwinds at relatively innocuous moments, and the dreariness of the landscape telegraphs dread, with Pawel Edelman’s gray, cold lighting and the equally drab production design (which is remarkably convincing at looking like Cape Cod, despite being filmed entirely in Germany).
When the story actually kicks into gear, with the memoirs becoming more and more dangerous to McGregor, the movie becomes less interesting. The plot isn’t as fun as the set-up is. The Ghost was not nearly an interesting enough character to keep me interested. Despite the mythic connotations that being nameless and referred to as ‘The Ghost’ imply, out character is in fact the complete opposite. He is too bland to merit a name and his discoveries are all echoes of other people’s efforts- a Tabula Rasa, to be used by everyone. This proves to be the film’s biggest problem, because even when he realized the truth, how much people counted on his obliviousness- there is no pathos. I never cared about this poor fool who is completely out of his depth like I did about Warren Beatty in ‘The Parallax View’. Consequently, the ending of the film- which should be resounding in its irony and cynicism- almost falls flat.
I say ‘almost’ because Polanski saves it with a wonderful bit of showmanship. At a critical point, a note containing the solution to the mystery at the core of the film is given to a person in the back of a crowd. In one shot, we see the note being passed from hand to hand, making its way to a person at the front of the crowd. It is difficult to describe the thrilling effect of this expertly crafted shot. A paltry piece of paper contains earth shattering revelations, and it is being casually passed from one person to another, each one dutifully not even thinking of looking and passing it on. There is more conspiracy greatness in this one shot than in the rest of the film.
‘The Ghost Writer’ is the film Roman Polanski was in the process of completing before his recent arrest. In the five years since his last film (‘Oliver Twist’), there has also been a documentary about him (‘Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired’) which re-ignited the discussion about his infamous legal predicament. Anticipation of this film has been considerable, which is why it is important to state that one should not walk into this film expecting greatness, or importance. It is neither. It is a slight film, directed with a steady hand by someone who knows that it is essentially a trashy thriller. Polanski is content with finding little nuggets of fun or interest wherever he can, whether in telegraphing dread, having fun with the public perception of the Blairs, or distilling a genre to a single shot.