A car is left unclaimed on this ferry from Martha's Vineyard, and soon after the owner's body is discovered washed up on the beach. He was the ghostwriter for the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), and his death is not thought to be suspicious, but his replacement has to be found, and the publishers start interviewing potential candidates. One of those (Ewan McGregor) strikes a chord in them when he says what the biography needs is heart, and soon after is offered the job - but as he gets further into the business of Lang's life, the more he grows uneasy...
The Ghost, also known as The Ghost Writer (both titles appear on the film), was overshadowed even before it was completed when its writer and director Roman Polanski was re-arrested for a past crime of child rape that he had committed, and had fled the United States to avoid the consequences of, back in the late seventies. Soon the debate over what should be done about the filmmaker with regard to this was reignited, and his latest work, which he had to edit while in prison, was somewhat lost in the controversy. As it was, the affair blew over once again, but what of the film? Was it worth valuing separately from its creative instigator?
Actually, if anything, the film was also overshadowed by the Robert Harris book it was based upon, a political thriller that many liked to see parallels between real world statesmen and the ones within its pages. Lang was evidently based upon Tony Blair, and while he wasn't quite a perfect match, Harris was using artistic licence to make his point about the way American politics manipulated British, something that had become apparent to many in light of the war in the Middle East that both countries "teamed up" to wage. As the set up in the story is similar to that in real life, with Lang losing his former popularity due to a controversial war, it was as if art imitated life.
Although, one hopes, not quite as far as being identical to what turns out to be happening by the end of the film. All the way through, with its wintry landscapes, inclement weather, and characters not revealing everything to the ghostwriter (who is never named), the atmosphere is splendidly sinister, especially if you hadn't read the book and were in the dark over where this was going to end up. For some, the place might be too slow, but the tension is not so much gradually built up as uncovered a bit at a time, so that by the halfway stage there's a palpable disquiet to what we're seeing. McGregor was the best he had been in some years, skillfully building a personality with no backstory and capturing the sense of an innocent getting in way over his head with sympathy and even humour.
The ghostwriter is sent to the ex-Prime Minister's holiday home, the same island where the previous ghost was found dead, and is landed right in a mess of intrigue as he tries to turn lead into gold with the manuscript of memoirs he has been given. He is restricted to the point that he cannot take the papers out of the house, and Lang is not offering much help, being vague and impatient, but what nuggets he does allow the writer arouse his suspicion - and his paranoia. Why did Lang suddenly turn to politics after apparently starting a career more interested in acting at Cambridge? Why is his wife (a brittle Olivia Williams) so disparaging towards him; could it be stress due to the war crimes rumours hovering around her husband? It's all great stuff for the conspiracy theorists, yet after two hours of intelligent suspense, there's an ending which almost derails the whole film, and makes what had been convincing look a bit silly. Nearly made it, too. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.