Roman Polanski's name on The Ghost Writer has brought the film extra attention, attention that Polanski certainly would rather do without. I found it interesting that his name was not in the opening credits (nor was anyone else's). That was a good decision, as it was easy to slip into the story without constantly thinking of the legal situation that surrounds the director.
The Ghost Writer, adapted by Polanski with the author of the source novel, Robert Harris, is a paranoia-tinged thriller that aims to be more intelligent than the typical multiplex cloak-and-dagger exercise these days. There isn't an incendiary device to be seen, and of three deaths in the film, two of them happen off screen. The style is welcome, but I couldn't help but leave the theater unmoved by the skulduggery. The baddies are the usual suspects (I won't reveal that here) and the sense of menace is toothless.
The title character is played blandly by Ewan McGregor. He is a writer-for-hire who's brought on to pen the memoirs of an ex-British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor ended up taking a header off the ferry between the mainland and Martha's Vineyard, where Brosnan is living in a kind of exile, along with his wife (Olivia Williams) and assistant (Kim Cattrall). Their house, right on the beach, looks like a concrete bunker, accentuating the feeling that Brosnan is in a kind of prison.
As McGregor begins his research, Brosnan comes under investigation by the World Court, and is threatened with war crimes. It seems he illegally turned over a British citizen captured in Pakistan over to the CIA for rendition. This story line makes unsubtle comparisons between Brosnan and Tony Blair, who was famously known as George Bush's lap dog.
As this storm swirls around the principles, McGregor finds some holes in Brosnan's life story. Brosnan's performance in this area is cagey, as he is supposed to be something of a lightweight, a former actor who serendipitously wound up in politics. Then, in a commercial for BMW's GPS system, McGregor ends up finding a key bit of information in the form of a Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson).
Viewed piece-by-piece, these scenes are taut and well-done. The very end, which involves a note being passed through a room full of people, followed by pages of a manuscript blowing through a street, are brilliantly rendered, but upon deeper reflection I found myself wondering, "So what?" The reveal at the end is clever, but doesn't seem all that earth-shattering. I couldn't help but comparing the film to Polanski's other paranoid mystery, Chinatown. The ending of that film, which involved a much narrower scope, was far more disturbing than The Ghost Writer's, which has geopolitical consequences.
Part of the problem is McGregor's character. He is unnamed, and I get that this reinforces his role as the unknown man behind the scenes, but unfortunately the character is pretty much a cypher, and I didn't care about him. He ends up in bed with Williams, who's a far more complex character, but it's hard to see why she's attracted to him, other than that he's a warm body in her orbit. Brosnan is well-used--his breezy charm, which nearly ruined the James Bond franchise, is intriguingly used here.
The cast is also full of cameos in strange places--Jim Belushi, head shaved, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach. Most of these faces are welcome, but not enough to elevate the material into the realm of the top rank. Instead, it's a moderately successful film, ably helmed but ultimately not equaling the sum of its parts.