There is a body, that much we know for sure.
A disgraced former British Prime Minister is in exile in Martha's Vineyard and his aide has just washed up on shore, drowned under suspicious circumstances, and for a long time in Roman Polanski's engrossing mystery The Ghost Writer that is the only concrete clue we have that something sinister is going on beneath the surface. A lot of mysteries these days serve up clues like a children's TV show, circled and underlined and with Ian McKellan giving a Powerpoint presentation. Not here, where we find ourselves leaning in closer to pick up on any leads we may be missing. We are carried along by Polanksi's confidence. Even if we can't see how all the pieces fit together we trust Polanski does. He did make Chinatown, after all.
The Ghost Writer is the kind of film I don't realize how much I want until I get one. It is a mystery by adults for adults, atmospheric and quiet where most films are noisy and crammed full of clunky exposition and unnecessary action. When was the last one of these we got? The Constant Gardener? Zodiac? Watching the film I felt gratitude that they put in the effort. It shows.
Like many classic mysteries, including Chinatown, The Ghost Writer uses the device of the spreading stain, starting with a single crime and following its connections until it encompasses greater crimes, often crossing into unconscionable transgressions against society. The dead man in question was ghost writing a political memoir for Adam Lang, former British PM who was drummed out of office for his unpopular involvement in a war in the Middle East. To say that Lang recalls Tony Blair is to suggest that it is left open to ambiguity, which it isn't. Polanski and writer Robert Harris are not interested in being coy.
A replacement writer is rustled up with great haste. He is a pro played by Ewan McGregor with seemingly zero interest in politics (his last job was ghost writing a bestseller for a famous magician) His job is to take the work in progress and make it marketable by injecting heart and readability. His dawning realization as to the scope of the awfulness of the book he's been brought on to save makes for some winning comic relief.
The ghost writer (he is given no other name) is quickly absorbed into the isolated world of Lang. The former PM is taking fire from all sides and they are in full-on defense mode, made clear by the ever-present mob of protesters at the end of the street. No sooner does the ghost arrive than the International Criminal Court announces they are going to bring Lang up on war crimes charges. Also, in the air at Lang's compound is the icy relationship between Lang and his wife Ruth. She is a steely-eyed realist and active player in the career of her husband, who can be a bit scatter-brained. Yet tough as she is not above being being stung by the way her husband no longer even bothers to hide his affair with the bombshell aide played by Kim Catrall.
The performances of Olivia Williams and Pierce Brosnan as the Langs are the heart of this movie, and are both worthy of supporting Oscar consideration. Williams is fantastic at playing both Ruth's toughness and her flashes of vulnerability and resentment at their current situation. We spend most of the movie wondering what she's thinking and the more we learn about her character the more we realize just how good Olivia Williams performance is. But as strong as she is the real revelation here is Pierce Brosnan, who I have never seen be so magnetic on screen. He gives us a man of multiple dimensions who can go from charming to blinkered to statesmanlike in the space of a few minutes, believable as both the leader stepping out of the blackened limo and the bewildered guy on the couch in his jogging clothes having aides explain to him the predicament he's in. The movie springs to life when the Langs are on screen.
The great flaw of the film is that the central character lives up to the title all too well. He is a blank slate. The idea that character is never even given a name is a clever conceit but I'm not sure it's a wise one. Over the course of the film we wonder why it is he doing what he's doing since he started the story focused intently on his bank account, blithely indifferent to all matters of politics. When Philip Marlowe would get entangled in a mess like this we sensed the wounded romantic underneath the cynical shell. Here we don't sense much of anything. Is he eager to be considered a real writer? Outraged by the implications of what he finds? Read a few too many Encyclopedia Brown books? The movie doesn't seem to know or care, and it keeps the film firmly on this side of greatness.
Also a letdown is Cattrall's sexpot secretary. She is amusing in the context of Brosnan's character but doesn't really come across as a plausible player in the drama, and she should. Mysteries depend on their eccentric supporting players like Superhero films depend on their crazy villians.
That said, the things The Ghost Writer does right far outweigh the missteps. I particularly like the way Polanksi didn't amp up the thrills to ridiculous action movie levels. He understands that when you actually believe the action in question is taking place it doesn't need any extra pyrotechnics. Horrifying enough to be followed by an ominous black car without having a Bullit style chase. There is a scene where McGregor is cornered on a ferry by some heavies he has every reason to believe will kill him. He escapes by jumping about three feet back to the dock as it floats out to sea, and I swear that jump was more exciting than all of 300 because I believed it was a real guy in real danger making a real jump. Think about it - If any of us ever did that we'd be dining out on that story for the rest of our lives.