(by Dustin Putman
A shrewd, intoxicating slow-burn thriller, "The Ghost Writer" exhibits a firm, controlled grasp of both form and content, telling a story that never loses sight of its characters (and vice versa). All the while, intrigue and invaluable old-fashioned suspense mount, the film sparking to life under the helm of writer-director Roman Polanski (1999's "The Ninth Gate") and co-writer Robert Harris (adapting from his own novel, "The Ghost"). Timely—and suitably cynical—within present day's political climate, that the picture also manages to remain fully plausible is a testament not only to Polanski, but to the world we live in. It doesn't take a great leap to imagine people have been wiped out for knowing far less than what the title character, unwittingly embroiled in the dark underpinnings of a government official's shady past, stumbles upon. Article continues below
The Ghost Writer (Ewan McGregor) hasn't a name—at least, none that is given onscreen—and it is just as well. Called upon to anonymously bring shape, context and all-important heart to his clients' books, he is prone to walk away with a tidy paycheck but without even passing credit for the work. His latest assignment is a doozy: complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) within a set one-month deadline and earn a cool $250,000 in return. The Ghost's predecessor, who had already completed the book's first draft, is dead, the victim of a mysterious drowning off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. As this latest writer begins his work, enmeshing himself in the lives of Lang, Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and Lang's tireless assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), it comes just as a very public scandal breaks out accusing Adam of war crimes ranging from the okaying of kidnapping to torture. When Lang flies to D.C. to deal with the potential crisis, the Ghost Writer is left mostly to his own devices in Lang's seaside compound. What he ultimately stumbles upon not only contradicts the book's supposed facts, but could, if investigated any further, cost him his own life.
"The Ghost Writer" harkens back to a time when classic storytelling and potent, well-nuanced characters meant the world in cinema, while action and special effects served the plot only if needed. Unhurried and never less than thoroughly absorbing, the film knows how to involve an audience, pushing their buttons without falsely manipulating them. In addition to strong writing (not only the sharp, at times acerbic, dialogue, but the moments of observatory silence), director Roman Polanski fashions a disquieting mood that hangs portentously over the proceedings like an inevitable tragedy foretold. The cinematography by Pawel Edelman (2008's "The Life Before Her Eyes"), with Germany uncannily standing in for the overcast, rain-drenched Martha's Vineyard and its surrounding areas in New York, is gorgeous in all its gloomy spectacle. Scenes such as the very first one, wherein a ferry docks on an island only to discover the owner of one of the cars onboard missing, absolutely pop with their indelible use of blacks, grays and dark neons to build a purveying atmosphere. Making a big impression next to the photography is the humdinger of a music score by Alexandre Desplat (2009's "New Moon"), a chilling, truly inventive ode to Bernard Herrmann as performed by what sounds like a marching band crossed with a traveling midway.
Set-pieces that have been seen many times over, such as that of a shadowy car following the protagonist down lonesome roads, is made fresh by the level of intensity built, the assuredness of the editing, and the use of a modern GPS system with a mind presumptively all its own. This sequence, leading into another set on a ferry, is top-notch filmmaking, tweaking genre conventions to their fullest capabilities. As the Ghost Writer gets in over his head, meeting one figure after another with ties to Adam Lang and uncertain if any of them at all are worth trusting, engrossment in the goings-on refuses to flag. Even as deliberate as the pacing sometimes is, there isn't a spare scene or plot element that could be, or would want to be, taken out of the equation. At a lengthy 128 minutes, the picture remains lean and no-nonsense.
Ewan McGregor (2009's "Amelia") is close to perfect as the hero, unnamed throughout but growing to be much more than just a stock figure going through the motions. McGregor's character has no real opinion of the man whose memoir he is writing, or, for that matter, his politics, but he finds himself sinking further into swamp waters almost in spite of this as clues to Lang's true background practically drop onto him. That he becomes temporarily involved with Lang's wife Ruth, a bitter woman who has sacrificed her dreams for her husband's, probably isn't the best idea, either, but this proves to be the least of his problems as his snooping gets the best of him. As Ruth, Olivia Williams (2009's "An Education") is chilly yet sympathetic, past her prime and searching for something to call her own. The way Williams' role is written continually surprises. As Lang's assistant Amelia, Kim Cattrall (2008's "Sex and the City") is almost shockingly good playing a character who is clearly not Samantha. Cattrall's terrific turn feels lived-in rather than acted—always a positive thing—and the unforced handle of her British accent is impressive, to boot. Pierce Brosnan (2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief") grabs more than a few memorable moments out of his screen time as Adam Lang, a political figure without much interest in politics or honesty. Smaller performances are just as notable—proof how capable the cast and script are—from Tom Wilkinson (2009's "Duplicity"), unforgettable in his subtle creepiness as Paul Emmett, a classmate from Lang's past at Cambridge; to Eli Wallach (2006's "The Holiday") as an old-time resident of the Vineyard who offers sage advice to the Ghost; to Soogi Kang as Dep, the Langs' committed housekeeper and cook who may or may not know more than she lets on; to Marianne Graffam as a wearisome, period-garbed hotel clerk.
The Ghost Writer goes to unimaginable lengths to bring the world Adam Lang's memoir, and, wouldn't you know it, he's not even invited as a courteous to the book launch (he's invited by Amelia as her plus-one). This bitter, wryly comic irony segues into a finale that, without giving things away, keeps satisfying despite perhaps not adding up to as much as some viewers may be expecting. Nevertheless, it gets the job done, culminating in a final shot overwhelming in its steely, cruel, poetic simplicity. How things turn out aren't as they should be, but how they probably would be, and that is the rule with which "The Ghost Writer" so confidently abides by throughout. Filmmakers fail at mysteries and thrillers all the time, dumbing them down, pandering to the mainstream, losing sight of characters for style, and feeling the need to overexplain things ad nausea. Roman Polanski averts every one of these pitfalls. Indeed, he makes it all seem deceptively easy.