" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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In Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese decided to bring his considerable technique front-and-center. Scorsese pushed his ingredients into a hyper chamber of thrills where extravagant visual gestures become the norm. In his new thriller The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski — another top-ranked director — follows a different route.

Although there are terrific images in The Ghost Writer — beginning with the opening shot of a ferry docking at a Massachusetts beach town — Polanski doesn’t call attention to his cinematic virtuosity. He’s telling a story, and if the story eventually bogs down in its own intricacies perhaps Polanski should be forgiven. The Ghost Writer is quietly involving, a thriller that doesn’t aim for the usual adrenalin-fueled shocks.

The Ghost is often the last to know
The Ghost is often the last to know

Adapted by Robert Harris from his own novel, The Ghost Writer tells the story of a writer (Ewan McGregor) who’s hired to ghost write the memoirs of a British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). Brosnan’s Adam Lang was forced to resign as the result of torture-related disclosures. Lang evidently turned suspected terrorists over to the CIA, an action that caused a furor in Britain.

After leaving office, Lang (an attractive Tony Blair-like figure) moved to the U.S., becoming a Massachusetts resident in exile. McGregor’s character — referred to only as The Ghost — is hired after another ghost writer dies, an apparent suicide.

Just about everyone in the movie knows more than The Ghost, who gradually begins to understand that he may be in danger. The Ghost must weave his way through a web of intrigue and deception as he tries to uncover the truth about a former Prime Minister who can be charming but who also indulges a volatile temper.

McGregor, whose recent work in movies such as Amelia and Angels and Demons has been disappointing, pulls off a neat trick: He’s playing a writer whose career has been subordinated to the lives of others. The Ghost may be well paid, but there’s no public recognition of his existence. He’s an authorial invisible man.

Brosnan ably portrays a beleaguered public man living in enforced privacy with his wife, the terrific Olivia Williams, and an assistant (Kim Cattrell) who may be more than a workmate. Timothy Hutton has a nice small turn as Lang’s cagey lawyer, and Tom Wilkinson proves especially sturdy as a Harvard professor encountered by The Ghost toward the end of the movie’s second act.

There are some great touches here. Polanski, who shot the film in Germany, gives the Langs an ultra-contemporary house that looks like a seaside bunker on the outside and yields to modern sterility on the inside. Williams makes intelligence look sexy, and we feel as if we — like the title character — have gained access to the private world of a once-important man who has resurfaced in disgrace. Lang is about to be charged by the World Court with crimes against humanity.

Polanski seems drawn to characters who are in over their heads, and the movie — particularly in its final scenes — does an admirable job of showing the disconnect between the earnest sobriety of public displays and the sloppy realities of private life.

During a long-ago film course, I watched scenes from Polanski’s breakthrough Knife in the Water over and over again. The professor discussed the ways in which Polanski created tension and he certainly hasn’t lost his touch. He has a great capacity for inwardness and concealment — if not for selecting the best material.

Still, The Ghost Writer pulls us into its orbit, a whirlwind of intrigue and corruption that destroys anything caught in its wake, and there are bits and pieces that any director would envy: the tension that accompanies a set piece in which The Ghost tries to elude men who follow him onto a ferry or the intentionally obvious way Polanski plays a waiting game with the audience, following the progress of a note as it’s passed from hand-to-hand in one of the movie’s final scenes. At its best, Ghost Writer’s makes us feel as if we’re eavesdropping on conversations that we’re not supposed to hear.

Whether Polanski’s endlessly publicized, ongoing legal troubles limit the movie’s appeal remains to be seen, but The Ghost Writer shouldn’t be dismissed. Here’s a movie in which it’s not the characters who are seductive, but the movie itself. Polanski’s gift is one of insinuation and guile. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that The Ghost Writer becomes less persuasive as its secrets are revealed.