Review: The Ghost Writer

If The Ghost Writer, now playing in theaters, does not feel a little familiar then you are not paying attention to politics, particularly British politics. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was widely viewed within Great Britain as George W. Bush’s stooge and lackey. It seemed that whenever Bush said “jump”, Blair would respond with, “How high?” Great Britain was our firm ally after 9/11 and followed us into the debacle that became the Iraq War. There are all sorts of reports, some actually factual, that suggested darker and more sinister motives from 10 Downing Street.

The movie W. gave director Oliver Stone a chance to plumb the depths of George W. Bush’s soul. Based on my review, Stone portrayed Bush as even shallower than he let on in public. The Ghost Writer lets director Roman Polanski give Tony Blair the same treatment, just in transparently fictional setting. Polanski may be a convicted child molester here in the United States, but he clearly hasn’t lost the knack for directing. The Ghost Writer does turn out to be a whole lot more engaging than its transparent premise would suggest. It also is perhaps a window into Polanski’s own troubled soul. More on that later.

Pierce Brosnan plays Tony Blair, sorry, “Adam Lang” who superficially looks and sounds a lot like Tony Blair. In this movie, he is also George W. Bush’s lackey in TWOT (The War on Terror). By the time the movie starts, Lang has been put out to pasture. He seems to prefer to live in New England in retirement; however, he remains always the restless politician because he rarely stays at his estate for very long. He is apparently rich enough to retire to a very exclusive house on an island off the coast of New England. (They do not say which island it is, but I assumed it was Martha’s Vineyard). There he lives on a big estate surrounded by a very big fence with a number of toughs at the front gate. Protestors can often be found in front of the gate, as they are convinced that Blair, sorry, Lang ordered British forces to torture Islamic extremists.

The ghostwriter (Ewan McGreggor) gets to spend time at the estate for the obvious reason. He will earn a quick quarter of a million dollars if he can revise an earlier draft of the book within a month. As we learn from one of the opening scenes, the first ghostwriter met with an untimely fate and was found on a beach near the estate, dead from drowning after presumably slipping off the ferry to the island. Can you say, “foreshadowing”? I knew you could!

Lang’s retreat is a very odd and very cold (as in impersonal) place. It is clear within minutes of getting inside Lang’s little fortress that there are some major household tensions going on. To wit, Lang’s brilliant but distant wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) seems to be estranged from Adam, who seems to be more interested in bedding his long-time personal assistant Amelia Bly (Kim Catrall). There are many peculiar things going on at the Lang estate and much of the staff’s time is spent in the daunting business of image control. The maid is unusually cold and, moreover, there is a creepy guy who spends his day in the driveway obsessively raking away saw grass. Nor is Lang, when the ghostwriter finally meets him, terribly revealing about his past life. He refers to him as “guy”, but in fact, the ghostwriter is never named once in the movie.

The estate is as dark and confusing as the island it inhabits. It is February and it is unremittingly cold and grey, with frequent squalls of cold rain. The manuscript by the first ghostwriter is kept in a special vault under lock and key. The ghostwriter eventually finds himself trying to supplement the material by talking with others who knew Adam. Names in the first draft of the book and mysterious old photographs in the guest room of the house lead the writer on a chase that becomes increasingly darker and scarier. Meanwhile, we learn that the International Criminal Court wants Lang to stand trial for crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering torture.

So it is convenient that Lang is living in The United States, one of a handful of countries not to recognize the ICC. Lang can quickly escape to Washington into the bosom of his Bush friends, but can he escape from the creepy guy living outside his security fence who seems abnormally obsessed with him? And was the first ghostwriter’s death an accident or something more sinister?

You can probably correctly guess the latter. The allusion to the ICC though is somewhat funny, given that Polanski has been on the run from U.S. law for more than thirty years. He was recently detained in Switzerland and will likely return to the United States to serve his sentence for having sex with an underage minor back in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s what makes this otherwise rather predictable movie work so well: Polanski understands what it feels like to be hunted. It also helps to have some terrific actors. Brosnan’s performance is about what you would expect. McGreggor is a decent actor as always. Eli Wallach has a neat little bit part as well. The actor to really watch is Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife Ruth, who sort of befriends the writer while also pushing him away.

This was one of those rare movies where I figured out the ending, but from the gasps in the audience I gather most of them were like my wife. So there is actually quite a bit to enjoy in this weird, creepy world inhabited by Adam Lang and his cohorts. It’s something of a rarity today in our special effect laden theaters: a movie for adults on adult topics. It’s worth seeing.

3.2 on my four-point scale.

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