Ewan McGregor returns from the Dark Side.
Bad politics begets many things, including bad wars, bad economies, bad karma (hopefully) and, thankfully, good political thrillers. The Cold War spawned Seven Days in May, and from that sweaty, filthy liar Nixon's time in the White House, we got The Parallax View, All the President's Men and The Conversation. Roman Polanski's new film, The Ghost Writer, nicely adapts the paranoia in those classics to modern times, even if it does so without really breaking any new ground.
Ewan McGregor is The Ghost, a professional ghostwriter whose name we never quite catch. He lands a plum gig, writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and if he can work quickly, it should be easy money, because all he needs to do is freshen up a manuscript put together by one of Lang's former aides, who drunkenly toppled off a Massachusetts ferry and drowned. Lang is a PM who lock-stepped with the U.S. government into a Middle Eastern war, and, yes, you'd be correct in assuming that he's modeled after Tony Blair, only better looking.
However, just as they get to work, the International Criminal Court opens a formal investigation into whether or not Lang allowed the exportation of British citizens to secret foreign bases, which resulted in kidnapping and death. As Lang and his entourage go into a damage-control lockdown, The Ghost finds himself comforting Ruth (Olivia Williams), the lonely former First Lady of Britain, as he uncovers evidence that could implicate Lang in the death of The Ghost's predecessor. And if one Ghost has gone missing, there's no reason another one can't be erased, too.
Does that sound convoluted? It is, but unlike so many contemporary thrillers, it isn't overly plotted. Complex? Absolutely. But what gives The Ghost Writer credibility is that it makes sense. Sure, you know that things aren't what they seem, and you know that there's no shortage of people trying to get their mitts on Lang's original manuscript, but—just like The Ghost—you don't know why. And that's precisely the idea. Polanski arms his audience with the same information as his protagonist, giving you an incomplete picture that constantly takes hairpin turns without making leaps of logic. In that way, it's a grownup film, despite the contrived PG-13 rating. (In fact, you can see Brosnan's lips say “fuck” on several occasions, even though the audio has been overdubbed into something else.)
In crafting this solid, if somewhat unremarkable, thriller, Polanski has also provided real acting opportunities for McGregor and Brosnan, both of whom slipped over to the Dark Side in recent years. McGregor's Ghost is terrific fun because he makes bad decisions and flirts with almost every woman he meets. And why shouldn't he? He's no spy, just a wordsmith in way over his head. Brosnan is a wonderfully smarmy actor, but he has so many paycheck credits on his résumé that it's often hard to take him seriously. He more than acquits himself as a public figure who's almost impossible to get a read on. And between last year's An Education and this, perhaps Williams will finally start to get the opportunities that should have been afforded her after Rushmore. Tom Wilkinson is in it, too, putting on a nasally American accent, but it's not much of a surprise, since he seems to be in every movie these days.
It's somewhat ironic that The Ghost Writer is opening around the same time as Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both directors are veterans of exceedingly intense movies, and both have chosen, this time around, to make films that seem somewhat beneath their talents. But both pictures provide the directors with a fairly simple template to showcase their talents. Polanski's done better work, certainly, with movies like Chinatown and The Pianist, and with that in mind, it perhaps diminishes the importance of The Ghost Writer, just a bit. We all know what Polanski is capable of, after all.
And no, that doesn't refer to the actions that have him under house arrest in Switzerland.
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