Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh
Running Time: 128 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
The Ghost Writer is Roman Polanski's Shutter Island, minus the style and even much of the substance. That it was released in theaters at exactly the same time as Scorsese's film is just too ironic to ignore when you consider this really could pass as the poor man's version of it. Both are mystery/suspense thrillers that feature its protagonist trapped on island with untrustworthy and possibly dangerous people and attempt to shock with a surprise "twist ending." They're also both likely to enjoy an inflated reputation because of their directors, although this apparently more so. It just a sprinkling of thrills, mystery and suspense as it meanders for over two hours to a forgone conclusion that isn't worth the time invested from viewers. Maybe that wouldn't be so frustrating if portions of it weren't intelligently written and it contained a few strong performances, as well as some strange casting decisions.
The most surprising thing about the picture isn't the ending (one of the dumbest final scenes all year) but the fact that Polanski wrote and directed it, although he does do as good a job as humanly possible hiding just how ordinary it all is. When you have a film that's all build-up you have to be prepared to really deliver beyond the conventional. The constricting script prevents that, instead serving up another one of those reasonably entertaining government conspiracy cover-ups. There are aspects to admire, but unfortunately none have anything to do with the actual plot.
Ewan McGregor is the unnamed title character hired to ghost write the memoirs of Ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), after the previous man hired for the job mysteriously washed up dead on the beach near Lang's Massachusetts estate. It was ruled a suicide but Ghost (as our protagonist refers to himself) has his suspicions and for good reason since Lang is embroiled in a bitter public feud with former political ally Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), who's accusing him of war crimes. While that alone would make great material for an autobiography, Lange's personal life is also falling apart as he's been cheating on his cold but loyal wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams) with his assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall in an AWFUL performance). With the deadline quickly approaching, Ghost's goal moves from finishing the book to just simply surviving as he inches closer to the truth.
Leisurely paced but never boring, the film takes its time getting to where it needs to go by slowly dropping clues along the way as we discover along with Ghost key pieces of information that are clearly meant to lead to something big and revelatory about Lang. It's fun imagining just how much could have been done with the premise of a ghost writer getting in over his head and there are moments in the second hour when it seems the screenplay will take full advantage of that, but ultimately it just takes the easy way out. Lang is never really an interesting character and is given problems (both personal and political) that literally seem cribbed from the evening news and put to film. There's no effort to make his back story interesting in the slightest to the point where he's a walking political cliche, right down to his extra-marital affair. Brosnan, with his smooth and easygoing charm, is perfect as Lang (many probably imagine him as an ex-British Prime Minister anyway) so this isn't a big stretch for him, but he still brings as much as possible to a limited role. McGregor is a reliable, though not extraordinary actor, so he's in his comfort zone also as an ordinary guy thrust into dangerous circumstances.
The true standout is Olivia Williams who brings a lot to the table as Lang's wronged wife, Ruth than anyone could have reasonably expected from what's usually a thankless part. She suggests an entire history with her performance that's far more compelling than anything we're given, subtly conveying emotional pain and vulnerability that was above and beyond the call of duty for a story this pedestrian. It's a nomination-worthy turn, if only the movie containing it didn't seem so inconsequential. Making almost as much impact in a single scene is the always spot-on Tom Wilkinson whose, brief but memorable appearance as a mysterious college friend of Lang's teases a deeper, more interesting film that never arrives. A bald James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, the former "Mr. Freeze" Eli Wallach round up the curiously mainstream cast, dragged down only by Kim Cattrall, who besides struggling with a British accent, stops every scene she's in dead in its tracks with her capital A "Acting". Why cast a well-known American actress who has to attempt an accent when the role is a glorified cameo and contributes nothing to the story anyway?
With the exception of Alexandre Desplat's appropriately moody and suspenseful score, from a technical standpoint the movie is nothing special, with a generic look and feel that recalls the kind of cable thriller you might land on during a lazy Sunday afternoon. Say what you want about Shutter Island but it it had visual style and atmosphere to spare and Scorsese knew exactly what what he wanted that film to be. Polanski can't seem to decide whether he's making a cheesy B-level potboiler or an intelligent political commentary. As a result, it's neither and I don't even know what to make of him employing a plot point that involves Lang being unable to leave the country because of his crimes. The less said the better I suppose. That and a conclusion that plays as an all-out farce makes me wonder if he was even taking this seriously at all. It's not that the ending was at all predictable or saw it coming, just that I didn't care by the time we got there. The Ghost Writer is a well-meaning but generic thriller, regardless of who directed it, but admittedly a bit more disappointing when you consider who did. It works best for those who set their expectations low and have made it a point to avoid every other film of its type that's out there.