Roman Polanski’s deft political thriller “The Ghost Writer,” based on the 2007 Robert Harris bestseller “The Ghost,” is equal parts comedy and black comedy. Gracefully, inexorably, it goes from silly to scabrous. The film may seem insubstantial while you’re watching it, but, in its own tingly, deadpan way, it has many of Polanski’s trademarks: a curdling, cruel humor; an outsider hero who is also a patsy; and a pervasive dread.
Ewan McGregor plays a character – nameless in both the book and the movie and listed in the credits simply as “The Ghost” – who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after his previous collaborator is found mysteriously washed up on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. Lang is encamped in a luxurious, isolated house on the island while conducting a stateside lecture tour. This luxury is no match for the drizzly grayness of the location. As Lang’s tart wife, Ruth (a first-rate Olivia Williams), puts it, it’s like being exiled with Napoleon in St. Helena.
A bigger storm brews when Lang’s former foreign minister (Robert Pugh) agitates in public for Lang to be tried in The Hague for colluding in the kidnapping of four Pakistani terrorists who were subsequently delivered to the CIA for torture. (One of the terrorists died.) While all this is going on, The Ghost uncovers, accidentally, evidence left by Ghost No. 1 about Lang’s iffy past. He fears he will suffer the same fate as his predecessor.
It would be a mistake to take this uniformly well-acted film seriously as a political “statement.” Yes, it features a nefarious corporation with a name that sounds suspiciously like Halliburton, and Lang, who is clearly based on Tony Blair, is portrayed here as a mindless lackey of the Bush administration. And yet all this registers lightly. I suppose one could object to the issues of rendition and torture being employed in such a cavalier fashion, but, at its core, “The Ghost Writer” is about The Ghost’s tentative, almost accidental skullduggery. He is the archetypal Hitchcock hero, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. The entire political apparatus that surrounds him is a classic example of a Hitchcockian “McGuffin” – a great white shark that proves to be a red herring.
It took me a while to decipher all the whorls and curvatures in the plot, but I chalk that up to my ineptitude and not Polanski’s. The film comes together in the end in a way that makes sense of everything that came before. “The Ghost Writer” is minor Polanski but it’s one of the rare thrillers these days that plays up to you instead of down. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity/sexuality, some violence, and a drug reference.)