The opening scene of “The Ghost Writer,” the newest film by visionary director Roman Polanski, illustrates a mysterious death of a man. A ferry has just arrived at its destination and passengers are dispersing in their cars. The only car left belongs to this man, who had fallen out somewhere in the middle of the ocean and drowned. There is debate throughout the movie whether he had committed suicide or was just too intoxicated and accidentally stumbled off the ship’s deck.
Unfortunate occurrence, as this man happened to be an aide to Britain’s former prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang put the responsibility in the hands of this man to finish his memoirs, considering the man had been right there with him through countless situations. In the current predicament, the whole project seems to be in a precarious spot. Nonetheless, Lang presses on and inquires for a ghostwriter, or one who is paid to write works that are credited to another according to the Wikipedia definition.
The fifth interviewee is a successful memoir writer who is never directly named throughout the movie (Ewan McGregor, and let us just call his character Obi-Wan). The memoir’s distributor officially hires him, although he appears to be an unlikely individual for the job. On the con side, he is not quite the politically knowledgeable kind and is oblivious to the Prime Minister’s major accomplishments. But as an advantage, Obi-Wan is British as well (he may be able to provide the “jolly-ol’-England” feel to the work), and he believes that he can inject some much-needed heart into the memoirs, a benefit that may help sales.
Obi-Wan is invited to work at Martha’s Vineyard, which is where Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) reside. In order to gather information for the memoirs, he frequently interviews Lang about his past experiences leading up to why he became interested in politics. He plans to put a more profound and sincere spin on Lang’s answers. As time moves along, however, his version of the past is starting to show inconsistencies. This gives Obi-Wan the incentive to search through Lang’s past memorabilia to uncover just what Lang is holding back from him.
Meanwhile, a rumor is circulating around various media formats involving Lang. Sources say that, during his time as Prime Minister, he participated in war crimes involving the CIA’s torture of supposed terrorists. This bit of information angers a lot of people. These people are literally lining up outside picketing at the gate leading to his residence everyday. The growing scandals cause Obi-Wan to become more and more suspicious by the moment.
Just like what Obi-Wan does, Roman Polanski knows how to include heart in the many characters portrayed in the film. These are people that are unique and that you actually care about. When characters become more and more developed, the more enthralled I got. When they undergo a change of heart, you are genuinely interested in what is taking place onscreen. The atmosphere is magnificently dark and melancholy and the storytelling is both smart and exceptional.
The movie remains at this level of goodness all the way up until the third act, where the mystery angle of the story begins to unfold. As evidenced in my review of “Edge of Darkness,” you might not call me great fan of mystery. Despite this fact, “The Ghost Writer” ultimately surpasses movies such as “Edge of Darkness” and 2009’s “State of Play” in its mystery storytelling. My theory is that the filmmakers by that point gave the viewers plenty of time to resonate with the characters, so that by the time all the conspiracies are unraveling, the audience has a relative gist of each of the character’s quirks and intentions.
What it all comes down to is that there is a fine line between entertainingly complex and needlessly convoluted. Most recent mystery films unfortunately fall into the latter category. “The Ghost Writer” is that example far and few in between that proves there is still vitality left in the genre. The film is both entertaining as both a political drama and as a mystery thriller, which is difficult to execute in this day and age. Thank goodness for Polanski.