Death, betrayal, mystery and an ending that will leave audiences stunned — “The Ghost Writer” has all the elements of a typical dark Roman Polanski mystery, but it doesn’t quite meet the high standards set by his previous masterpieces “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”
Based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, Polanski’s film begins with the mysterious death of the ghost writer working for British Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Ewan McGregor’s character, who, like a true ghost writer — a person who is paid to write text that is attributed to someone else — is never referred to by name, picks up where the previous writer left off. While writing the Prime Minister’s memoirs, the new ghost writer dives into the politician’s corrupt life and learns the secret that killed the writer before him.
Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” carries that refreshing sense of vision and direction that come from the film of an established auteur, a filmmaker who has a distinct style that carries over into all of his or her films — think Quentin Tarantino or Spike Lee. Though not as flawless as Polanski’s previous films, “ The Ghost Writer” still proves to be successful at bringing suspense and mystery to the screen. The tense screenplay, combined with Polanski’s tight, purposeful direction, allows a mystery to unfold that doesn’t depend on the typical Hollywood frenzy of rapid cutting and disorienting camera angles. Instead, Polanski slowly and discretely presents a dark, satirical message about power, corruption and human nature.
The most powerful aspect of “The Ghost Writer” lies in its saturnine, atmospheric cinematography. The tone and texture starts out light and airy in white, well-lit offices and bustling interiors, but as the story gets darker, the cinematography follows. The second half of the film looks overcast with strong, inky shadows and a bluish, greenish tint — a visual representation of the decay and corruption unfolding in the story. Every scene is purposeful, every prop and lighting arrangement carefully planned. Every shot looks like it would carry as much beauty and meaning if it stood alone as a photo. Films with this kind of cinematography are hard to come by.
One of the main reasons “The Ghost Writer” misses the four-star mark lies in the acting. As with most Polanski films, “The Ghost Writer” is lengthy, clocking in at just over two hours, but several weak performances cause the film to drag at times. McGregor and Brosnan succeed at bringing life to their characters through the use of specific body language, genuine facial expressions and cat-and-mouse dialogue, but Ruth Lang (Olivia Williams) and Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) both descend into moments of anger and sadness that feel forced and insincere. Paul Emmet (Tim Wilkinson) also delivers his lines in a dry, robotic way that feels as if he is reading cue cards. A love-or-hate ending reminiscent of “Chinatown” will also leave viewers wanting more.
“The Ghost Writer” still proves to be an enjoyable experience for someone looking for a break from the visual style of typical Hollywood mysteries. Fans of Polanski will be pleased with his tight, purposeful direction, but a lack of sincere performances prevents this film from reaching the same height as his previous dark thrillers.
“The Ghost Writer” was written by Robert Harris and directed by Roman Polanski.