Think of the easiest way to insult a professional writer. Did you think to accuse them of not being a “real writer?” In the most tense and authentic moment in The Ghost Writer, Olivia Willams’ Ruth Lang accuses Ewan McGregor’s The Ghost of being less than a writer. The unnamed man has been brought in to ghostwrite her husband’s, Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang, memoirs of his time as prime minister of England. A simple editing and styling job turns into an international mystery of murder and war crimes as The Ghost starts to uncover how his predecessor died while working on the same book.
So much of The Ghost Writer works brilliantly. The performances from the principle players are strong. You cannot take your eyes off of Olivia Williams’ suffering wife performance. Her disdain for her husband’s actions rarely bubble over the surface, making the few flashier scenes all the more powerful for having a basis in her character’s prior behavior.
Ewan McGregor fades into the background as the unnamed writer. His job is to distance himself from his subject’s reality and his only break is in the “Didn’t you ever want to be a real writer?” spat with Williams. It’s strong subtle performance work that’s easily overlooked.
Pierece Brosnan nails his former actor turned major politician turned paranoid shell of his own design role. His part is the flashiest and he doesn’t overwork any scene.
Alexandre Desplat’s score helps The Ghost Writer move along at a great pace. Using a gritty mix of bassoon, flute, English horn, and possibly bass clarinet (it’s either very pushed bass clarinet or a wobbly alto clarinet), Desplat sets up a fast moving loop of off-putting tones. The notes go together but the combination of instruments is less than complimentary. The drums rarely kick in to announce the arrival of chimes or a muted trumpet. The score does wonders for livening up some very uneventful chase sequences.
The failing of the film is Roman Polanski and Robert Harris’ adaptation of Harris’ novel The Ghost. The film becomes very heavy-handed when Polanski and Harris try to set up the final twist in the end. The twist doesn’t so much solve the mystery as raise more questions about what you just sat through. Perhaps it’s more fulfilling in a novel where these preparatory scenes would be given equal weight to the red herrings.
However, for me, I realized in the first overdone scene involving the major players what was actually happening. Obviously more of the narrative is revealed as the film goes on, but the core twist is exposed early in the film and brought up again and again until the final scene.
As a mystery or thriller, The Ghost Writer does not measure up. What it does provide is an interesting character study and a sharp piece of social commentary.
Ewan McGregor’s Ghost character is an odd choice to be the center of a film. He’s a man who makes his living writing as other people. He wears neutral suits, talks in pleasantries, and wants to make everyone else look better but himself. Yet, as he dives deeper and deeper into the not-so-mystery of his predecessor’s demise, The Ghost begins to take on more of a personality. Or perhaps you project a personality onto him.
In a typical mystery/thriller, the main character solving the mystery has a stake in the game. The mother in The Ring will die in seven days if she doesn’t unravel the mystery of the tape. The father in Taken has to find his daughter before she’s sold into trafficking or murdered.
Here, The Ghost’s stake is finding out how to make the former prime minister look good. The death, the international court, and the family drama have no role in his life. Yet he pursues those mysteries with an eye for detail and a precision reserved for the finest film detectives. This mystery with no stakes for him becomes his obsession as a way to understand the motivations of his subject. The Ghost does not crack open so much as slowly overtake us with each new scene.
The social commentary is broad but cuts hard. Former Prime Minister Adam Lang is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. His administration allegedly captured for British citizens and tortured them to get intelligence on terrorist organizations. Lang’s whole world begins to crumble at the time his personal life is about to be exposed to the wide world.
Protesters swarm his American mansion. Reporters hound him and his staff for comments. And his former friends, employees, and coworkers throw him to the wolves to save their own lives. Told through large staff meetings and omnipresent media coverage, the pending trial of the Ghost’s subject is perhaps the most thrilling aspect of this thriller.
Unfortunately, The Ghost Writer falls short of its intended goals as a mystery or thriller film. The great secret of the film is not as compelling as the context of the picture or the undercurrent of the role of a ghost writer in his subject’s life. While a thriller fan will find something to enjoy, this is hardly the grand event it should have been with this cast and creative team.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.