Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is a movie out of place and out of time. The place is supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard, the celebrity isle off the coast of Massachusetts, where most of the story is set. However, given Polanski’s well-known travel restrictions (which have lately become even more acute — he had to finish tinkering with this film from his house-arrest château in Switzerland), he was compelled to shoot the Vineyard exteriors on the German North Sea island of Sylt. One grassy dune or gray, wave-lapped beach is pretty much like any other, probably, but there’s a heavy glumness to these scenes that feels off.
And while the story is technically topical — former British prime minister (think Tony Blair) under attack for his complicity in promoting the Middle East agenda of a former American president (read: George W. Bush) — the movie feels dated. It’s a conspiracy thriller that’s rather low on thrills, and its depiction of high-level political treachery was done far more excitingly 30 years ago in pictures like “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor.”
Ewan McGregor plays an English writer who’s been called in to ghostwrite the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the charismatic ex-prime minister, who’s currently holed up in a stylishly tomblike beach house on Martha’s Vineyard. A previous ghostwriter has already done a lot of work on this project — dreadfully dull work, as it turns out — but that unlucky scribe was recently found washed up on a Vineyard beach, having apparently fallen off the ferry from Cape Cod (or mainland Germany, or wherever). Our new writer — let’s just call him McGregor, since the character has no name — is dispatched Stateside to finish the book with Lang, and arrives just as news is breaking that Lang could be hauled before the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for his actions as prime minister in turning over suspected Pakistani terrorists to the American CIA for torturing. In the ICC’s view, this would make him a war criminal.
The Lang household is thus in considerable ferment when McGregor appears. The man’s exasperated wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams, in the movie’s zingiest performance), clearly feels her husband is a jerk — will they now have to spend the rest of their lives in American exile? (The U.S. would be a safe haven, since, like Russia and China, it has ignored the ICC since its inception.) Ruth is additionally peeved because she knows Lang is sleeping with his snippy assistant, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall, with not a lot to do here), who’s also on hand. Lang himself, as McGregor discovers when they sit down to pick over his life, is a slick, superficial character (Brosnan is suitably perfunctory in the role) who’s not very forthcoming about biographical details. So McGregor starts digging them up on his own. He learns that Lang and Ruth first met as students at Cambridge University. Eventually he learns that both of them had ties to a shadowy academic named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), and that Emmett was once a CIA agent. On the way back from a hostile interview with Emmett at his woodsy home outside of Boston (or possibly Berlin), McGregor realizes that his German luxury car is being followed by another German luxury car. Not just followed, in fact — chased. Like his dead predecessor, he finally makes it onto the Vineyard ferry — but so do his pursuers. He escapes, barely, and then manages a timely connection with Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh), Lang’s former foreign minister, who’s now the motivating force behind the ICC investigation into his old boss’ terrorist-torturing activities.
The movie is based on a book by Robert Harris, a onetime English political journalist and friend of Tony Blair who broke with the then-prime minister over his staunch support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Harris has claimed that the character of Lang isn’t actually based on Blair, but since the character of Ruth Lang also bears a notable resemblance to Blair’s wife, Cherie, I think we can dismiss that contention as a bit of peremptory legal prudence. Harris devised the script for this movie with Polanski, and the most striking thing about its fictional portrayal of a British government co-opted by CIA-controlled moles is that it’s in some ways a mirror image of the true story of the Kim Philby spy ring — the coven of upper-class traitors, recruited at Cambridge University in the 1930s, who insinuated themselves into British intelligence and spent years during and after World War II funneling classified homeland information to their own controllers in Soviet Russia. Compared to such real-life duplicity, the controversial actions of a Tony Blair, now inflated into Harris’ jilted-lover portrayal of Adam Lang, seem small-scale. It’s not like Blair sold his country down the river or raped a 13-year-old girl or anything.
“The Ghost Writer” isn’t Polanski’s worst movie (that would be “The Ninth Gate”), but it’s sluggish and conventional and a long way from his great ones. At the age of 76, this gifted and endlessly troubled director’s days of triumph might be behind him. Given his current legal situation, so might movie-making itself.
Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Shutter Island,” also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Ghost Writer.”
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