In Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer,” a man without a past rattles around in the life of a man with too much of one. He begins by reading the work of an earlier ghost who mysteriously drowned, and finds it boring and conventional. Hired to pep up the manuscript to justify a $10 million advance, he discovers material to make it exciting, all right, and possibly deadly.
This movie is the work of a man who knows how to direct a thriller. Smooth, calm, confident, it builds suspense instead of depending on shock and action. The actors create characters who suggest intriguing secrets. The atmosphere — a rain-swept Martha’s Vineyard in winter — has an ominous, gray chill, and the main interior looks just as cold.
This is the beach house being used by Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister so inspired by Tony Blair that he might as well be wearing a nametag. Lang has one of those households much beloved by British authors of country house mysteries, in which everyone is a potential suspect — of something, anyway. Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), smart and bitter, met Lang at Cambridge. His aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall), smart and devious, is having an affair with him. The wife knows, and isn’t above referring to it in front of the Ghost. Security men lurk about, and a couple of service workers look rather sinister.
Just as his new ghost writer starts work, Lang is accused by his former foreign minister of sanctioning the kidnapping and torture of suspects. The World Court prepares an indictment. It would be unwise for Lang to return to Britain, and he flees to Washington for a photo op with the U.S. administration, unnamed, although the Secretary of State looks a whole lot like Condi Rice.
The PM’s story is based on a best-seller by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. He implies parallels between his story and the Blair and (both) Bush administrations, but uses a light touch and sly footwork so that not every viewer will necessarily connect the dots. There is also a loud clanging alarm inviting comparison between Polanski’s Lang, an exile sought by a court, and Polanski himself. This is also the fourth thriller in recent months to make a villain of a corporation obviously modeled on Halliburton.