Does The Ghost Writer qualify as a roman à clef? The premise—a former British prime minister has become a loathed public figure for his support of controversial American efforts in the Middle East and the “War Against Terror”—is obviously meant to evoke Tony Blair, and the movie features obvious stand-ins for Cherie Blair, Condoleezza Rice, and Halliburton, among others. But it progresses in such a loopy, paranoid way that even I—not exactly a huge fan of the CIA or Cheney-linked defense contractors—could only shake my head in a daze.
In lesser hands, the whole thing might not have ranked much higher than a dopey “ripped from the headlines” episode of Law & Order. But it’s not in lesser hands; it’s in the hands of Roman Polanski, who, despite being a repugnant human being, is a brilliant director. Consequently, The Ghost Writer is a far better movie than it has any right to be: tense and pointed, with finely layered performances and a haunting air of exile. (I try not to think too hard about that last bit.)
Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed ghostwriter hired to punch up the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the much-loathed prime minister, following the sudden death of the original writer, a long-time political aide. But soon after the new ghostwriter arrives at Lang’s high-security estate on a particularly desolate stretch of Martha’s Vineyard (in wintertime, no less), Lang is accused of authorizing the extraordinary rendition of British citizens to be tortured as suspected terrorists by the CIA. With the threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court hanging over their heads, the mood among Lang’s circle turns from bad to worse. Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams)—once his most trusted adviser—is bitterly angry about the situation; his “personal assistant,” Amelia (Kim Cattrall), restricts access to the manuscript with obsessive zeal; and the ghostwriter has no clue how to navigate the treacherous waters in which he finds himself.
Polanski creates a palpable sense of unease from the first shots of the movie. Surrounded by gray skies and bleak sandy banks, policed by cold technology and colder guards, the Lang compound is both dreary and tense. The feeling of isolation and disgrace seems ready to overwhelm everyone, and as the screenplay spins its lurid conspiracy theories, biting disillusionment seeps in as well. The Ghost Writer isn’t suspenseful so much as suffocating, which I mean as a compliment. Lots of movies jangle the nerves, but Writer reaches deeper, gnawing and worrying those nerves to subtly disquieting effect.
Brosnan’s Lang seethes with barely contained indignation, and Cattrall, though weaker than most of the other actors on screen, does manage to convey the prim brittleness of a woman holding onto a mask of stoicism through sheer will. As for McGregor, he delivers an admirably human performance. The ghostwriter isn’t really a hero. He’s too hapless, too slow to realize the full import of what he’s stumbled into, but that very floundering is endearing, and his fear is sobering. True fear is actually pretty rare in a thriller like this—we normally get undaunted, wisecracking heroes—so the ghostwriter’s mounting anxiety becomes quietly powerful. As sensational as the intrigues might be, McGregor’s drawn, frightened face makes it feel real, at least for a while.
My favorite cast member, however, is the perpetually underrated Williams. After delivering two memorable performances in the late ’90s, in The Sixth Sense and especially Rushmore, Williams disappeared for a while, but she’s resurfaced as of late. An Education, Dollhouse, Hanna, a heart-wrenching guest turn on Terriers (a little-seen neo-noir TV show canceled after one great season)—in each role, large or small, she demonstrates a deep emotional intelligence, finding edges and shadings that bring her characters to dynamic life. In The Ghost Writer, she conveys not just Ruth’s astute mind but also her awkwardness, her fitful temper, her jaundiced sense of humor. Her Ruth isn’t a smooth femme fatale; she’s much more ordinary than that, and much more special. This movie should make it clear, once and for all, that Williams deserves to be given meaty starring roles more often.
Between Williams’s terrifically compelling performance and Polanski’s evocative scene-setting, even the fevered spy stuff doesn’t prevent The Ghost Writer from becoming a deliciously sour little thriller. The darkness looms. The twists pop. And that final little Chinatown riff, which would have pissed me off something dreadful coming from anyone else, actually made me clap my hands with glee here. After all, if anyone gets to rip off Chinatown, it’s Polanski, and he does it with such incredible style. I might judge him for other things, but for that, at least, I’m happily indulgent.