"Ghost Writer" displays more style than substance
directed by Roman Polanski
starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, with a cameo by Eli Wallach
based on the novel by Robert Harris
“Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski’s latest, is a little like the classic gag of a beautifully gift-wrapped box that, when opened, reveals another, smaller box, and within that, yet another box, and so on until the last box turns out to be empty. Polanski’s technique is as impeccable and his worldview as jaded as ever, but the story ultimately leaves you wondering: is that all there is? The film is like “Chinatown” without the thing that made “Chinatown” matter—the knockout punch to our collective moral gut.
That’s not to say it fails to engage the viewer along the way. It starts out promisingly enough, with the mysterious death of a man hired to ghost-write the biography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He’s soon replaced by another (Ewan McGregor), who agrees to finish the job for a tidy sum, notwithstanding abundant warning signals that something about this project stinks. The new “ghost” finds himself holed up at a New England beach house - all sleek, expensively sterile contemporary lines - with a closely guarded manuscript and the intermittent company of Lang, his razor-edged wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and a small entourage of ultra-discreet assistants (including one played by that queen of slinky self-possession, Kim Cattrall). Tensions rise as Lang is indicted by the International Criminal Court for collaborating with the CIA to kidnap and torture suspected terrorists, forcing him to stay in the U.S. to avoid extradition, while the ghost writer begins to investigate certain clues, left behind by his predecessor, to the Langs’ chequered past.
The movie’s political topicality turns out not to be one of its more interesting features, as it remains largely collateral to broader themes involving the structure of power and ownership of narrative. Somewhat more interesting is the ironic consonance between Lang’s very public, international fall from grace, and Polanski’s own, which many critics haven’t been able to resist dissecting in light of the latter’s recent arrest. But “Ghost Writer” operates first and foremost as a carefully crafted mystery.
And it had the potential to be a first-rate one. Polanski ratchets up the suspense with a masterful hand and sustains the mood of vague unease beautifully through brooding, expansive shots of the gray, wind- and rain-swept landscape that passes for a Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket-type retreat and a reliably atmospheric score by Alexandre Desplat, set off by flashes of dry, Polanski-style humor. But the final twist underwhelms and the ending fizzles, even though (or perhaps because) it’s altered from the book—most likely for the sole purpose of setting up a last, sweeping shot that’s clearly designed to erode any lingering faith in the inevitability of justice. It’s a powerful image, but its impact doesn’t feel truly earned—not least because it requires considerable suspension of disbelief as to how McGregor’s character would be likely to act.
Or maybe not. One of the most disappointing or fascinating aspects of “Ghost Writer,” depending on one’s viewpoint, is the total opacity of its ostensible protagonist. That’s undoubtedly deliberate, as, too, perhaps, is McGregor’s flat, affectless performance. His is, after all, a character without a name, back story, or visible human ties of any kind, a literal ghost. Yet I couldn’t help wondering why one would cast an actor as charismatic as Ewan McGregor to play such a blank. (Particularly disheartening are his interactions with Cattrall’s character, which seem scripted to generate some kind of flirtatious spark but instead flop limply like cold noodles.)
Fortunately, the rest of the cast supplies all the energy that McGregor lacks. Brosnan’s an intriguing study as the disgraced ex-PM, more reminiscent of Ronald Reagan—if Reagan had been prone to fits of rage underneath all his geniality—than Tony Blair, while the redoubtable Tom Wilkinson casts an extra shade of menace as the scholar who seems to have closer ties to Lang than he’s willing to admit. The standout, however, is Williams, who’s simply marvelous as the embittered, acerbic, tightly wound Ruth. Perpetually wary and fearful that her influence over her husband may be waning, she seethes with anger, jealousy, and frustrated ambition, and nothing escapes her poisonously sharp tongue or even sharper eyes. Whether intentionally or not, she emerges as the film’s most indelible figure: no ghost she, but arguably the true writer of the narrative presented here.