Thanks to Roman Polanski’s “Ghost Writer,” written by Polanski and Robert Harris, we have a stunningly enacted, perfectly sensible if ultimately improvable explanation for Gulf War Two. Imagine, theoretically, if England’s lockstep with America in Bush’s War was orchestrated by the special relationship of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s pants-in-the-family wife Cherie’s with a CIA operative that fronted as a Harvard Law School professor.
That’s the premise of this understated, well-acted thriller, adaptation of Harris’s novel, “The Ghost.” Thinly masking the real-life characters and circumstances of Tony Blair, his wife Cherie, and former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, the story follows the footsteps of the Ghost (Ewan McGregor) who fills in as ghostwriter number two for the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The first ghost died under mysterious circumstances. Ensconced in a lavish home at Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost begins work the moment Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), former British Foreign Secretary, points the finger at Lang for breaking international law by allegedly handing over British terrorist suspects to the CIA for interrogation and torture. Along with Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his personal assistant/mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall), the Ghost gets caught up in the maelstrom of a feral press, equally feral protestors and some spooky (nice metaphor: the Ghost gets mixed up with spooks, another name for spies) business that involves Harvard Law Professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson)’s role in the untimely demise and its cover up of the first ghost writer.
Polanski’s stylish subtlety belies the global implications of the plot’s cover up, beginning with the unraveling of a troubled family, continuing through thousands upon thousands of unnecessarily lost lives, and concluding, only just perhaps, with justice finally being rendered. He got the actors to act like firecrackers with long, lit fuses, on the verge of imminent calamity but without the expected explosion. The final climactic, wholly unexpected scene is as much a tribute to the director’s marvelous set up and pacing as it is to our ultimate disgust with real life hypocritical face saving warmongering.
Playing a skeptical though more-than-competent cleaner-up-of-famous-people’s-messy-lives, McGregor achieves a masterful performance as a lab rat in a maze who can only respond to whatever stimuli the mentally deteriorating Lang, the lonely (sexual and otherwise) and seemingly unstable Ruth, and the manipulative, knows-more-than-she-lets-on Amelia administer. He offers a rich and telling portrayal of a young man who finds that the problems with the unwieldy manuscript pale in comparison those he faces with his sudden transformation from a Ghost into a Spook, a task for which he finds himself frightfully incompetent.
Brosnan’s Lang was magnificently conflicted, not so much because his world was about to cave in but because he wanted his side of the story, a message he encoded in his book, to show who was really pulling the strings. As Lang’s wife, Williams nicely showed that her anxiety had far deeper roots than concern for her husband and that her open warfare with Cattral’s Amelie was motivated by more than mere cuckoldry.