Given director Roman Polanski’s recent legal troubles it’s hard not to infer some deeper meaning into the plight of “The Ghost Writer’s” ex-Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) accused of war crimes. In a moment of art imitating life Adam Lang’s lawyer says, “I strongly advise you not to travel to any country with extradition policies.” If Polanski had listened to that advice he might not have had to finish editing this movie from a jail in Switzerland.
Within Lang there are echoes of Tony Blair. He’s a popular, if controversial ex-Prime Minister—“He wasn’t a politician,” says the ghost writer, “he was a craze.”—with a ten million dollar book deal and a dead co-writer. The late journalist was found washed up on shore near Lang’s remote Cape Cod beach house under very mysterious circumstances. Pitch hitting for the late writer is Ewan McGregor’s character—he doesn’t have a name in the film—a professional ghost writer whose biggest hit was a biography of a magician called “He Came, He Sawed, He Conquered.” His job is to turn “incoherent rambling into a book.” Soon, however, his job is complicated when Lang is accused of war crimes by a former colleague. Untangling facts that may (or may not) place his own life in danger he turns from writer-for-hire to investigative journalist.
There is so much to like in “The Ghost Writer” that the few lapses in credulity are easy to forgive. I mean, are we really to believe that a massive conspiracy could be figured out using google? What’s next? Sherlock Holmes using Ask Jeeves? Apart from that bit of silliness Polanski has crafted a film that can comfortably sit beside “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View” for political intrigue.
The pacing is deliberate, not slow, but deliberate. Clues are doled out carefully, keeping red herrings to a minimum and allowing suspense to build with each new nugget of information. Tension and paranoia build with every scene. This is the man who made “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” so he knows how to make the mundane sinister. Ringing phones and loud raps on doors create an ominous atmosphere where danger is around every corner.
Add to that some interesting work to show the futility of the writer’s job. Watch in the background, the director places a gardener endlessly sweeping up dead leaves from the compound’s many patios, only to have them blow out of his wheel barrel every time he makes any progress. It’s a clever metaphor for the writer’s Sisyphean search for the truth. As he gets in over his head, trying to unravel years of twisted political strategy, I wanted to paraphrase Polanski’s most famous movie, “Chinatown.” “Forget it, writer. It’s politics.”
McGregor, who has played a writer twice before in “Moulin Rouge,” later in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” is convincing but really shines when he is working opposite Pierce Brosnan. I’m willing to overlook Brosnan’s recent turn as a half man / half horse in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” when he can be this good. He looks like a politician, like he was made for photo ops in front of private jets, waving to his constituents, but it is in the cat-and-mouse dialogue between Lang and the writer that he does his best work.
“The Ghost Writer” is Polanski’s first film in five years, and for those willing to judge the art, not the artist, it is as satisfying a thriller as we’ll see this year.