The Ghost Writer

Let’s toast to this not being a Star Wars movie.


Our friends who have kids warned us that our moviegoing habits would suffer once we became parents. And how. The last movie we saw in the theater (Eclipse) was five months ago. We have finished exactly one movie on DVD since becoming parents, and that was Kick-Ass. We started and stopped it five times.

Last Friday night we were feeling our oats in that “I-think-I-have-the-energy-to-stay-up-past-nine-o’clock” kind of way. So Ben went to Blockbuster and, after passing on Bad Lieutenant, brought home Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.

This is how he was received:

ERIN: What’s this about?

BEN: Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer for a retired prime minister who’s supposed to be Tony Blair. He starts writing the memoirs and all these suspicious things begin happening. You know, people dying, cover ups, standard thriller stuff.

ERIN: Who else is in it?

BEN [handing Erin the box]: Pierce Brosnan is the prime minister. And Olivia Williams plays his wife. I heard it’s supposed to be good.

ERIN: Hmmm. Was this direct-to-DVD?

BEN: What? No! It was in the theaters. It’s by Roman Polanski.

ERIN: You know we haven’t finished “Modern Family” yet.



Based on The Ghost by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer is a sure-footed thriller that begins well, loses focus and then rallies for a strong finish. McGregor signs on to finish Adam Lang’s (Brosnan) memoirs after the previous ghost writer turns up dead on the beach. (Note: Think twice about accepting any position in which the previous occupant turns up dead on a beach.) McGregor’s character (who is never named, called by Lang “man” and by himself as “the Ghost”) is flown to the publisher’s house, a sleek, modern compound set on Martha’s Vineyard in winter, where Lang and his entourage are holed up. (Polanski, who obviously could not film on the real Martha’s Vineyard, substitutes the beaches of northern Germany.)

Everything is presented from Ghost’s perspective, so we, like him, are not sure what to make of the messy situation he has walked into like a man stepping into a pile of dog poop (though being paid handsomely to do so). Lang is accused, by a former cabinet minister no less, of abetting torture and rendition, and faces charges from the International Criminal Court. His sullen, intelligent wife is withdrawn, likely because he’s having an affair with his assistant (Kim Cattrall). The memoir itself is a dreadful bore of warmed over sentiment (run to 700 pages, no less). When the Ghost finally gets an audience with Lang, he gets vague, glossy recollections that turn out to be not true. It could be anyone’s memoir, or no one’s.

The movie is shot through with steel gray, echoing the Ghost’s unsure footing in this unfamiliar terrain. (McGregor’s character notes early on, in making a case for himself as the right man for this particular project, that he has no interest in politics.) There is perpetual rain, long walks on colorless dunes, boxy interiors lit with subdued colors. (David Denby says of the film’s cinematography, “I don’t know when I’ve seen menace rendered with such delicate but persistent force.”) Despite his difficulty reading the situation, the Ghost finds himself in the thick of it after he drafts a statement and hears his words repeated back to him on the evening news. Later he compromises himself even further when he ends up in bed with Lang’s wife. (Whoops!)

The first hour is wonderfully claustrophobic, each detail and observation underscored with subtle dread. Ghost finds a package, belonging to the previous ghost writer, which contains photographs that contradict Lang’s account of his undergraduate days. A simple misunderstanding, or something more sinister? The Ghost ventures out onto the island for clues about his predecessor’s death and meets a crotchety hermit (Eli Wallach) who casts suspicion on the official version of events. Mere conspiracy theories or the keen insight of a local who never went to the police, which probably wouldn’t believe him anyway?

Where The Ghost Writer loses steam is when Ghost leaves the island, an enterprise which allows a terrific Tom Wilkinson to enter the plot but accomplishes little else. As Ghost delves further into Lang’s past, he resorts to Google to help him sort out the truth, uncovering details and connections that apparently no one — investigative reporters, oppo researchers, common folk with decent Internet connections — has bothered to sleuth out for the previous decade, an implausible howler in a movie that’s otherwise astute about political realities and the way people in power act and talk.

This is all redeemed by the ending, set at the release party for the finished book, during which the Ghost realizes who has held the upper hand all along and finally decodes the secrets embedded in the original draft of Lang’s memoir. The final scene, in a nod to Chinatown, features bystanders on a London street converging on an accident as the pages of Lang’s original manuscript float past in the wind, their secrets scattered upward into the night for everyone, or no one, to decipher.


14 thoughts on “The Ghost Writer

  1. You passed on Bad Lieutenant? I thought you guys were Cage fans! (I really liked it. Though it’s kind of ridiculous, it’s most likely intentionally so. And it has one line that I liked so much I wish I’d written it.)

  2. We are Cage fans, and I suspect Bad Lieutenant is next (which means we’ll probably get around to it next March).

    I’ll try and guess which line it is and report back.

  3. I generally respect and enjoy your suggestions. In this case I am going to have to disagree loudly and vociferously (I looked it up!).

    This movie was just plain bad. It dragged on and on and on and on and on… you get the idea. None of the characters were particularly interesting least of which the Ghost. And Polanski makes little attempt to hide his political perspective regarding Blair, Bush, and the war on terror. I don’t mind some political rhetoric but this was ridiculous. It reached its peak when the US Secretary of State has a brief appearance on TV as a well spoken African American woman who as saying something naive and misleading. We aren’t that dense!!! Come on.

    Erin was correct to want to watch Modern Family. Reruns of Rachel Ray would be better than this movie.

  4. Mr. Masterson,

    We find ourselves on opposite sides of a debate once again.

    Erin would likely concur with some of your points, but since I wrote the review, let me address your complaints:

    I found most of the characters interesting, the Ghost being at the top of the list because, while an intelligent guy with his wits about him, he’s clearly in over his head once he takes the assignment. But he’s also smart enough to realize this, which made him a winning character for me.

    I’ve never been a Pierce Brosnan fan but I thought he was a rather believable ex-prime minister. And Olivia Williams was fantastic as his wife — she’s sharper than she initially lets on, with lots of layers (like, to quote Donkey, an onion). But Kim Cattrall was a waste, no argument there. (I’m of the opinion Kim Cattrall is always a waste though.)

    I’m not so sure about the film’s politics. Brosnan/Blair’s defense of his administration’s decisions, when the Ghost confronts him about the information he’s unearthed, were passionate and full-throated. He voices the standard Bush/Cheney argument that torture saved lives, but I found his defense more sympathetic than I expected. David Denby alluded to this in his New Yorker review, but there are certainly parallels between Brosnan’s character and Polanski (accused, isolated, exiled).

    I also thought the film had less to say about American politics than it did British politics, where the response to accusations of war crimes (and subservience to U.S. interests in the Middle East) have been far more vociferous, to borrow your well-chosen word, than here in the States.

    The film’s explanation for why this is the case is, of course, preposterous, but it worked for me within the context of the movie. I’ll concede, though, that it requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

    My expectations for the film were not high, and it definitely surpassed those. I thought it was good Hitchcock lite.

    1. First, I want to apologize because my comments came across as way more partisan and whiney then I meant them too. My problem was not the political message itself my problem was the existence of politics in the movie. I suspect I suffer from political fatigue and therefore welcome a break from the rhetoric and therefore suffer when it shows up in unwelcome places.

      In the end I think my view of this movie was much more simplistic and much less refined and intelligent then yours (Ben). I would sum up it up this way, I was bored, totally uninterested, and cared very little what happened beyond the movie ending at some point.

      I know that offers very little in cinematic analysis and probably explains my loathing for Fight Club but love of Dumb and Dumber. This probably further shows I have no soul.

      1. I would hardly say disliking a film with Pierce Brosnan means you have no soul. In most cultures, this would be a testament to your humanity.

        One thing we can agree on: Dumb and Dumber — classic movie. Yesterday, for no apparent reason, I started singing both parts of the “Mockingbird” song at work. No one else joined in. I take comfort in knowing you would have though.

  5. Why the hell was there no spoiler alert?

    What’s that? Oh…

    My dear wife has just informed that I have watched nothing other than NFL games and episodes of Penguins of Madagascar for at least the last four months.


  6. I have no opinion on the movie at hand. However, on the subject of movies and small children: the only thing that allowed Lauren and me to see any new movies in the months after Thea was born was a local drive-in. We sometimes felt we’d wasted some money when we left–comletely exhausted–after the first movie, but it was still nice to get out and see a movie without either needing a sitter or being a nuisance to everyone else.

  7. I liked this movie as well, although not unreservedly. I thought there was a strange comic tone at times that didn’t sit well and, I too, had my reservations about the casting of Kim Cattrall (Williams was icily superb though.)

    Polanski is great with menace, from the long lonely opening series shots of the ferry in the rain coming to rest on the abandoned suv, to all those interior shots of the office with the long depth of focus of the expanse of grey beach outside the window, to the final dispersing shot of the movie ( which, I am sad to say, I did not recognize as an allusion to Chinatown until pointed out by Mr. Vore). Polanski has been better, but certainly worse (Bitter Moon). For some great claustrophobic menace, check out Death and the Maiden, if you’ve not already.

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