This is the newest film from Roman Polanski, the director of Tess and Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. And the fugitive from justice.
Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer, hired to assist a former British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan after the original writer dies, apparently by accidental drowning or suicide in a ferry accident. Off Ewan goes from London to Martha's Vineyard (or an analog thereto) where the manuscript is holed up in the publisher's house with the PM. No surprise if you've seen the coming attraction that it wasn't an accident or a suicide, and of course Ewan McGregor's character will be coming in for the same before two hours are over.
I was primed to like the movie from the start. There's a certain puckish charm to Ewan McGregor's performance that we haven't seen from him often enough in recent years, certainly not in the Star Wars movies. It's the second nice score I've heard from Alexandre Desplat over the past week; he also did the music for A Prophet. There's a sheen to the movie, a lot of craft. The opening scene of the ghost writer being interviewed for the job at the publisher's office --they got the publisher's office right.
Alas, good movies are not made from bad scripts, and this script by Polanski and novelist Robert Harris, on whose novel "The Ghost" the film is based, is not good.
There's a subplot torn from yesterday's headlines and today's that doesn't have much to do with the movie. The British PM is accused by a former cabinet minister of his of being complicit in torture. This tracks somewhat but not entirely with the allegations against Tony Blair by Claire Short and other such things. However, all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the spy thriller. You could totally remove every bit of business related to these allegations and have a very similar movie.
The reveal -- and here's the big-time spoiler -- is that it looks like the British PM might actually be a CIA agent, recruited by a professor in the early 1970s. But again, this doesn't hold up to a lot of scrutiny. All it takes is a few quick Google searches for this to get figured out. If it was figured out, would anyone believe it? Could it really be proven? I don't buy that it could or would. Would it do lasting damage to UK/US relationships even if it were proven? I'm just not sure it's worth killing anyone over.
If it is worth killing someone over... well, on the way to the Google searches, McGregor is able to retrace his predecessor's footsteps by following the GPS on the guest car that was being driven night of the murder. I figured out "hey, maybe he can check the past destinations in the GPS" the moment Ewan starts driving the car and finds out that it has one built-in. Ewan doesn't figure it out, rather he lucks into it, has the GPS hand him the big clue on a silver platter. Now, maybe in the wake of the surveillance photos of the assassination in Dubai of a Hamas leader I should have less confidence in the abilities of the bad guys. But this is a movie. Top CIA people. Nobody could figure out to wipe the GPS? And on this trip, another reviewer pointed out that they get the ticket buying wrong, that on a ferry in Martha's Vineyard in the United States you'd buy a one way or round trip ticket, while here he's given the Brit-style option of a single or return.
The ultimate big reveal...
Well, you know those anacrostic puzzles in the paper, where the first letters of each clue spell out the author's name and source of the quote? This sort of thing has lots of antecedents, as an example there are a number of prayers in Jewish liturgy where the first letters spell out the alphabet or the name of the composer or such as that. Well, that's where the ultimate big clue is hiding here, in the beginning words of chapters of the manuscript left behind by the original ghost writer. This I find to be one of the stranger places to hide your big secret.
And -- the big secret is that it wasn't the PM who was recruited by the CIA, but rather his wife.
But if it isn't even the PM who was the agent but his wife, then it's yet one more big step away from the possible direct harm in discovering that the British PM was a CIA agent, which means it's one more big step away from requiring the ghost writers to be murdered.
The ending of the movie is torn straight from the ending of Kubrick's The Killing. It's trying for irony, but there's been too much silly stuff en route for this to be ironic instead of one more silly thing.
Instead of seeing this, I'd suggest renting Polanski's 1988 Frantic, starring Harrison Ford.
And a quick demerit to the management of Clearview's Chelsea. Ghost Writer was playing and selling out on the relatively small screen #2. Shutter Island was playing on 2 larger screens upstairs, and no way could it have been doing twice the business this was in its 3rd weekend. The theatre management should have swapped screens and had Ghost Writer playing in a larger auditorium. No excuses for this.