With the credits now rolling, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer already feels like a classic. Few movies in recent years have handled suspense with such a masterful flair, and it does so without choppy editing and special effects. I suppose excellent actors and an ever-somber atmosphere are pretty special effects, but you know what I mean. Where fugitive exiled molesters are concerned, I'd rather them directing great movies than not directing movies at all.
Adapted from the novel The Ghost, by co-screenwriter Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer is one part mystery and two parts political thriller, though neither genre is handled by the books. We have a protagonist in Ewan McGregor's nameless Ghost character whose past and personal life are almost never referred to. Through his agent, he accepts the lucrative position of ghost-rewriting the already-finished memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He's replacing Mike McAra, a trusted friend who drowned in an apparent suicide only days before. Before he's even flown up to a stunning oceanfront house on Martha's Vineyard, more controversy is stirred.
Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh) is accusing Lang of conspiring with the CIA five years previous for the illegal seizure of four British citizens living in Pakistan who may or may not have had ties to terrorism. Needless to say, this throws a wrench into a book tour that Lang had planned, forcing him to stick around the house, set up as a headquarters for Lang's aides and staff. And then there's his subtly powerful wife, Ruth (the casually amazing Olivia Williams), who's staying on the island to support her husband, who never seems to be around her.
The ghost writer arrives, and Lang's covetous aide, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), shows him McAry's hefty manuscript, held in a safe, forbidden to leave the premises. There are secrets within those pages. The writer and Lang meet, and all seems well on the surface. Lang spouts lovey prose specifying Ruth as the reason he went into politics, a story the writer finds more interesting than anything McAry had written. He talks about his Cambridge days, his past as an actor, etc. Entertaining, but empty words. As the public story becomes more important than the private one, the writer begins his research.
Already, the spot-on casting, including cameos from Timothy Hutton and Jim Belushi(!!!), has made this a film worth watching. MacGregor is humorlessly brilliant, snarking through every personal encounter, proving that laying down a strong character foundation will sometimes allow for limited development. His facial expressions sometimes signify more than the words he speaks. Lang is Brosnan as I see him in my own head: conceitedly aloof and demanding. Williams could be a dream wife or a hated ex, especially when she learns about the affair with Amelia. I'd let her punish me. Ahem. The cast delivers on all fronts.
Once the national media takes over the writer's hotel so that he's forced to stay in Lang's temp home, Polanski allows himself to make the most of his locations. Already, the window in Lang's office looks like it opens up to a beautiful beach landscape painting. Even when things are rainy and gray, the mostly German setting is beautifully shot. Vision does not always go with age. I had to check, and IMDB does list filming in Massachusetts, but I have to assume that was just a second unit. Since we all know where Polanski's first unit was.
As is mentioned, I'm sure, in every other review for this film, the literal "ghost" of the film is Mike McAry himself, whose death may not be all that unsuspect. He has collected a small number of clues that point to irregularities in Lang's past. What kind of irregularities? You'll have to see for yourselves, as the two-hour-and-ten-minute running time lets information slack with a professional timing. If things don't interest you immediately, then don't bother. It's not a speedy flick, but it rewards your patience. Tom Wilkenson delivers a predictably spooky cameo as a classmate of Lang's, but it can't top Eli Wallach's unnerving neighbor-with-information scene.
The mystery continues over a minimalist score that fits like a glove. Then everything ends on a final few minutes that will either tickle you or piss you off completely. Such is the run for a movie that finds many humorous moments during the most dramatic of scenes. Thank God for the British. And thank Polanski's mother for Polanski, because he has delivered again, at last.
There are a few featurettes here that are almost as classy as the source material. "The Ghost Writer: Fiction or Reality" is a mid-short look at how close the Robert Harris book came to not existing, due to the Tony Blair comparisons. I avoided mentioning that stuff because it's fairly obvious and has been reported on before I came into it. Robert Harris gives a good interview, and speaks well of all involved.
"The Cast of The Ghost Writer" does the proper deed of showcasing everyone who appeared in the film. Because everyone is extremely on par, even the glorified compliments feel right on. No one is miscast. Tilda Swinton was the original actress for the role of Rose, but oh well, you know? She's so bony. "An Interview With Roman Polanski" is just that. He talks about the production and cast. Nothing too much. No evidence photos or anything.
Not necessarily for everyone, The Ghost Writer is without doubt a drama to remind the new generation how to make suspense without adding anything redundant to an already solid story. Characters die here, but they're not who you expect. I've been trained to expect everything. Roman's legacy lives on.