The latest film from Roman Polanaski has been hailed as a return to form for the director behind Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist — a taut political thriller that keeps audiences on the edge of their seat and tackles the important issues of the day. If only that were the case.
The Ghost Writer opens with an unnamed writer who goes by the moniker of “the Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) as he interviews for a juicy new gig: ghostwriting the memoirs of retired British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The Ghost is needed to punch up the already-completed manuscript that was put together by the previous ghost writer, a loyal aide to Lang who mysteriously drowned in the weeks prior.
As the Ghost begins his work, he realizes that something is amiss — the manuscript is a tightly held secret, which is odd considering there appears to be nothing terribly scandalous or even interesting in it: The Ghost actually falls asleep the first time he tries to work his way through it. Then there is the breaking news that Tony Blair-like Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for potential war crimes, including the waterboarding of captured terrorists. Combined with the untimely demise of his predecessor, these factors are enough to put the Ghost on edge.
In a thriller like this, pacing is key. To get the audience on the edge of their seat and keep them there, one has to keep things snappy: revelations need not necessarily come quickly, but questions need to be asked and the answers must seem important. The first act of The Ghost Writer manages to keep that pace quite nicely; it’s not until the slack middle that things get bogged down.
The middle hour is incredibly sluggish, a ponderous mess of a transition that doesn’t keep viewers engaged and, more frequently than not, is more concerned with scoring political points than moving things forward. Though there are a few funny quips and some juicy one-liners that call to mind the quick-witted moments in Chinatown, The Ghost Writer never quite mixes humor and suspense in a pleasant way. It takes itself too seriously to be funny, and there’s too much humor to really take it seriously.
This is the second time in the last year or so that McGregor has played a befuddled writer getting a glimpse into national secrets. As he did in The Men Who Stare at Goats, McGregor makes the best of bad material; he handles the wry jokes well and doesn’t get too lost in the mystery at hand. Brosnan, meanwhile, is entertaining as the Blair-like Lang, all smiles and smooth edges, at least until he is pushed. Olivia Williams, who plays Lang’s wife, is also quite stunning as the woman-behind-the-man who thinks her husband is hiding a secret from her.
If The Ghost Writer has a fatal flaw, it resides not with the cast but with the truly hideous ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but the manner in which the Ghost deciphers the clues contained within the original manuscript is amongst the more hackneyed, silly things I’ve ever seen, something more fit to have come from a work of fiction for children than a big budget dramatic feature with pretensions to something greater than popcorn entertainment. It’s laugh-out-loud, groan-worthy bad: a writer of pulp fiction wouldn’t even dare ending a novel this way for fear of never having another work published. Why Polanski or co-screenwriter Robert Harris thought it was a good idea to end their picture on such a note is beyond my comprehension.