When asked, during the open- ing moments of “The Ghost Writer,” whether he voted for the prime minister whose memoirs he has been hired to write, the author responds with a shrug, “Of course. He wasn’t a politician; he was a craze.” It’s perhaps the best line in the film, one that could describe our own recent election. But this thinly dis- guised roman à clef is not about Barack Obama; it deftly and gleefully impugns a politician from the other side of the pond.
Director Roman Polanski makes no attempt at subtlety as he tries to connect Tony Blair with his fictional prime minister of Britain, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is the hand- some, charming, popular, recently retired Labour Party prime minister. Before entering politics, Blair attempted a career as a rock star with the band “Ugly Rumours”; similarly, Lang studied acting at Harvard. Like Blair, Lang is responsible for bringing Great Britain into the Middle East war. Like Blair, Lang is married to a dark-haired, politically savvy beauty (in the film, Olivia Williams), and like many politicians (though not necessarily Blair ), Lang is hinted to be romantically involved with a lovely assistant (Kim Cattrall). Even the rhythm of the two names is the same: Tony Blair, Adam Lang.
As the film opens, a body washes up on the shore of an unnamed island, suggesting that a murder has occurred. The body turns out to belong to Lang’s original ghostwriter — the predecessor of the title character — suggesting that Lang is somehow connected with the murder. Lang arrives at the island that night aboard a private jet emblazoned with the corporate name “Hatherton,” a thinly veiled reference to Halliburton, suggesting corruption. And if the audience still doesn’t get it, Lang’s former cabinet minister, Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), accuses Lang on CNN of acquiescing to waterboarding in Iraq, suggest- ing war crimes. Yes, war crimes. By the following day, an international court in The Hague has formally charged Lang- Blair as a war criminal.
Politics aside, the film is an entertaining, though somewhat predictable, intellectual thriller. A new ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired as a replacement to revise Lang’s memoirs. His character’s name is never revealed; Lang calls him simply “Man,” and the writer calls himself “the Ghost.” It’s a clever, self-deprecating nod to ghost- writers, since everyone knows that public figures use them, but seldom are they given credit.
Immediately after he is hired, the writer is attacked by mysterious assail- ants who steal what appears to be Lang’s manuscript. Later, he finds clues left behind by his dead predecessor that lead him to suspect that Lang is hiding something. McGregor is excellent as the unnamed ghostwriter, injecting a sense of humor and ineptitude as well as suspense as he begins to realize that some- thing sinister has happened.
The film is awash with atmosphere. The house where Lang and the writer work on his memoirs looks more like a bunker than a beach getaway — it is dark, gloomy, isolated. The Ghost works in an office with a floor- to-ceiling window overlooking wind- swept dunes, where throughout the day servants stridently but unsuccessfully try to sweep up the mess of leaves that constantly blows onto the patio — a metaphor, perhaps, for the implied coverup of crime.
Supporting actors add to the atmosphere, though many of them are almost cartoonishly presented. Watch for a bald and bloated Jim Belushi as the cigar-chomping publisher John Maddox, and a toothy, rat-faced Eli Wallach as the eccentric neighbor on the beach. Cattrall is fine in an uncharacteristically serious role, and Williams is especially cool and unsettling as the prime minister’s now aging wife.
The most interesting thing in the film is the ghostwriter himself. The Ghost isn’t like most other writers; he doesn’t care about seeing his name on a cover or a byline, and he doesn’t care about being known as a “serious writer.” His most recent collaboration, a magician’s memoir, is entitled, “I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered.” He doesn’t attend the publication parties of his books, explaining that “inviting the ghostwriter is rather like inviting the
mistress to the wedding.” Even when clues begin showing up that could give him the book of the century, he isn’t anxious to pursue them. “I’m not an investigative reporter!” he explains. This reluctance of the journalist to act like a journalist, portrayed with just the right combination of charm and con- fusion by McGregor, gives the film a certain freshness despite its somewhat predictable story line.
The connection between Lang and Blair unfortunately persists after the film ends. In fact, after watching the movie, the person with whom I saw it kept calling the PM character “Tony Blair” instead of “Adam Lang.” Such a mistake is inevitable, unfair — and deliberately anticipated by the film- makers. Polanski may not agree with Blair’s politics. But to call Blair a war criminal, even by implication, goes too far. And speaking of criminals. . . .