In THE GHOST WRITER, Roman Polanski takes Robert Harris novel of the same name and gives it his own unique stamp. The tale is the classic one of an innocent man suddenly finding himself in the midst of intrigue and danger not of his making, The ominous overtones are pure Polanski.
The innocent, who is referred to only as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor), is the titular ghost writer who is proud to tell his agent that he knows nothing about politics. Hes about to get a crash course in theory and practice of same, from the personal to the global, when hes offered a contract to refashion the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). First of all, hes hired as much by a team of corporate-type lawyers as by the publishing house that has paid out a substantial advance for the unpublishable work. Hence the tidy sum of $250,000 The Ghost is offered, and the tight deadline of one month to produce a publishable tome. The short deadline is the result of his predecessor having died under mysterious circumstances while on the project. As with the predecessor, The Ghost is also required to join Lang on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts, where he is the guest of a billionaire while preparing for a speaking tour of the United States. The manuscript is under lock and key and cant leave Langs office. Just as well, considering that the first time The Ghost reads it, it puts him to sleep.
The mystery finds The Ghost rather than the other way around. Things begin to turn odd the moment the meeting with the lawyers and publisher is over when he is mugged for the package he is carrying. Things turn odder when he arrives at the fortress-like structure housing the charismatic, but short-tempered Lang, and his staff. Its a drear structure that resembles a bunker, but with considerably less charm. There is little charm among the residents either, particularly when Langs personal and professional life begin to unravel almost from moment The Ghost arrives. Langs affair with his starchy but provocatively dressed chief of staff , Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall with an unsure handle on the English accent she is required to evince) has aroused the ire of his intensely driven wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and a former government colleague is accusing him of having trafficked in a rendition of British nationals that resulted in one of them being tortured to death.
After being ensconced in his predecessors room, from which the mans effects have not yet been removed, he stumbles across the first clue that all is not quite what it seems. From there, The Ghost becomes less passive, investigating seemingly small disparities in Langs past and rather larger ones in the story of what happened to the previous Ghost and, more importantly, why.
Polanski has the mystery at the heart of his film unfold in an elegant, even unhurried fashion. What makes that mystery so piquant is that when the film begins, the audience has been deftly misdirected towards another mystery, a lesser one to be sure, but just as surely ancillary to the central one. Using a palette of grays, he creates a sense of the, you will pardon the expression, phantom factors at play, driving the action just beneath The Ghosts radar. Visually, this is reinforced by having action take place in both the fore- and background, sometimes almost off screen, sometimes entirely beyond the cameras reach. The effect is to create a wondrous sense of tension with things half seen, half heard, making even the most pedestrian of settings take on the most sinister of aspects.
There are car chases, but ones that would fail to catch the attention of a casual observer. There are conversations that are rife with menace, but on the surface appear perfectly civil. And in the midst of it all, The Ghost, a small man in a very, very large web attempting to get to the truth with all the helpless futility of the groundskeeper on the island whose constant sweeping of debris from a deck is met by Mother Nature blowing it right back and then some.
For all the allusions to recent politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, THE GHOST WRITER works best on the level of a metaphor, with McGregors big blue eyes growing wide first with surprise, and then with fear, as it sinks in for The Ghost what the consequences are of a pawn getting wise to the fact that there is another game entirely being played off the board.