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Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson
Writers: Robert Harris and Roman Polanski, based on Harris’ novel, The Ghost
Director: Roman Polanski
Ghost writer Ewan McGregor (his character is not named in the film) is used to writing celebrity memoirs, but is drafted to ghost write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan) in a hurry after the original writer and Lang’s longtime aide, McAra, is found drowned off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, where he and the rest of the Lang camp had been staying while working on the book.
McGregor finds himself in a world of secrecy and intrigue, unable to take the mammoth manuscript off the premises, vetted closely by Lang’s other aide, Ms. Bly, with whom it’s strongly hinted Lang is having an affair, as there is much tension between her and Lang’s wife, Ruth.
McGregor is being paid well and follows the rules, but quickly finds he is a target of anti-Lang people. As soon as he’s taken the assignment, he’s mugged for a manuscript the assailant probably thought was Lang’s, and he’s further verbally abused by an older gentleman in a bar who will be important later, and he also finds his hotel room ransacked. He’s then made an accomplice of sorts when a British official seeks to bring war crimes charges against him in the Hague for allegedly kidnapping a suspected terrorist and having him murdered without due process (too bad Lang wasn’t President; we do that stuff without much complaint these days). McGregor helps draft a response to the allegations and is bemused to find it aired that night on the news as Lang’s own words. Nothing new in politics, but clearly it’s a new situation for him.
He is brought into the compound to live while he works n the book, away from the protestors at the gates, and he’s put in McAra’s old room, where he finds some photos from Lang’s archives that contradict a key story in the memoir about how and why Lang first got into politics at Cambridge. McGregor starts digging around, and also looks into McAra’s mysterious death, as venerable old character actor Eli Wallach (he would be about 95 when this was filmed) plays a neighbor who casts doubt on the circumstances of McAra’s death.
No need to spoil every plot point, but suffice to say Polanski creates a memorable political thriller out of what is ultimately fairly thin soup. It’s not a bad idea to create a fictional avatar for Tony Blair whose every pro-U.S. decision may be borne of a long-range CIA mission, but what of it? Polanski seems to realize exploring this isn’t all that interesting—just one more guy pushing us into a phony War on Terror on dubious grounds—so he instead uses his skill at effective, if generic, thriller sequences. Smuggling evidence, being chased, doubling back and tricking one’s pursuers—this is all riveting stuff, with the unusual Vineyard setting and its beautiful lighting, and a sympathetic Everyman in McGregor (thank goodness there were production problems in 2008 that caused Nicolas Cage to drop out). It’s nice to see Cattrall with her real British accent, and Tom Wilkinson shows up to play one of his wonderful creeps. I always like Williams, too, who always overcomes her unconventional looks and non-voluptuous frame by scowling everyone else out of the frame. There are also solid if brief turns by Timothy Hutton as Lang’s attorney, Jon (The Walking Dead) Bernthal as McGregor’s agent, and James Belushi as the publisher, who has grown into his loathsomeness with a surprisingly good looking shaved dome.