An author with a unexceptional career is surprisingly hired to complete the manuscript of a retired British Prime Minister’s memoirs. What looks to be a surefire bonanza for the spirited, confident young scribe, $250,000 for four weeks work, soon becomes a more demanding — and more dangerous — task. Even before he sees the unfinished autobiography for the first time he’s mugged walking home from the publisher’s office.
The work reveals the previous ghostwriter’s draft to be a rather bland read. But what’s to come thrusts the journalist and the audience into a spicy drama with political overtones loaded with intrigue and suspense.
The Ghost, as Ewan McGregor’s unnamed character is referred to in the film, soon becomes consumed with curiosity as the multi-layered plot quickly thickens.
Ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is accused by a former staff member of sanctioning the torture of Iraqi prisoners, which is a war crime. Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) — clearly the brains behind her husband’s success — feels underappreciated by her famous husband and weary of his flirty personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). The scandal that could ruin Lang’s charmed life is exposed by a relentless news media. As his plight is relentlessly covered on television, members of Lang’s staff are doing some plotting of their own.
The body of the previous ghost writer, Lang’s loyal aide, washes up on the beach after a curious ferry ride. His associates unconvincingly label his death a suicide. When the Ghost uncovers some of his predecessor’s personal effects, what he finds transforms him into investigative reporter.
Golden Globe (Chinatown 1974) and Academy Award (The Pianist 2002) winning director Roman Polanski could very well have shot this film in black and white. The perpetually gray skies, persistent rain and turbulent ocean are nearly always visible through huge windows, which provide most of the interior lighting of Lang’s mansion. Lang's stylish, fortress-like home on a Martha’s Vineyard beachfront is virtually a character itself. Essentially a hideout for Lang and his staff, the opulent residence, guarded by his stone-faced security detail, heightens the claustrophobic atmosphere and contributes to the film’s foreboding mood. The slowly moving classical score adds to the suspense.
Even with the pervading gloominess, The Ghost Writer is nonetheless riveting, by virtue of witty, snappy dialogue delivered by a stellar cast with precision. The banter among these anxious, well-heeled Brits is highly charged and interspersed with a proper shade of gallows humor.
McGregor’sGhost stands out as the naïve, middle-class journalist who, sleuth-like, effectively steers himself and the audience through a torrent of unexpected plot developments. Brosnan convincingly conjures up images of real former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Williams, as Ruth,is equally superb as Lang’s long-suffering wife.
The casting of the smaller roles was intriguing and very successful. Look for a cameo by the great Eli Wallachin a scene that is fundamentally one of the film’s turning points. Tom Wilkinson as slippery Harvard Law Professor Paul Emmett is brilliant, as usual, in another defining scene. Cattrall, playing to type, is convincing as Lang’s brash and beautiful aide. Timothy Hutton as Lang’s American lawyer, Jon Bernthal as the Ghost’s agent, and a nearly unrecognizable James Belushi as the publisher, round out a superb ensemble.
Despite the stellar cast, legendary director, topical subject matter, and the fact that it’s an adaptation from best-selling author Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, this underpublicized movie was released without much fanfare in limited distribution. See it on the big screen if you can find it.