The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

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