Polanski has long had a passion for books, All of them Witches in Rosemary’s Baby and The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows in The Ninth Gate, which doesn’t make it surprising that he chooses to frame his story about a recently “retired” prime minister with a book. In this case, it is Adam Lang’s autobiography, which like Polanski’s previous books holds cryptic keys to this political thriller.
Ewan McGregor is a ghostwriter who has been called in to clean up Adam Lang’s autobiography, after a previous ghostwriter was found washed up on a deserted beach of an island off the coast of New York. The movie is ostensibly based on Robert Harris, The Ghost, but has been honed to razor sharp perfection by Polanski. You probably won’t recognize the setting unless you are from Rømø, Denmark, as much of this movie was filmed in Germany and Denmark, since Polanski obviously didn’t have free access to the United States. The “ghost” is never mentioned by name in this film and essentially serves as the viewer’s eyes and ears in ferreting out Lang’s story, with various false turns and other surprises along the way that keep you guessing throughout the movie.
Adam Lang is a thinly veiled Tony Blair, but rather than dwell too much on troubled political history of poor Tony, Polanski opts for a number of intriguing cinematic references including The Manchurian Candidate. The political climate recreated in this movie serves more as a distraction to the much more sinister underlying story. Eli Wallach makes a virtually unrecognizable cameo when the “ghost” gets caught in the rain on his way to the spot where the previous body had washed up. One of many foreboding scenes which Polanski deftly handles.
I was most impressed by how much Polanski was able to draw out of what seemed to be a rather banal cast. Pierce Brosnan was pitch perfect as Adam Lang. Ewan McGregor was at his “ingénue best,” as Manohla Dargis notes in her review for the New York Times. Olivia Williams was virtually unrecognizable as Lang’s disgruntled wife. Even James Belushi, who I can’t stand, does a pretty good impersonation of Rod Steiger in his brief scene at the beginning of the movie.
It is wonderful to see that Roman hasn’t lost his touch after all these years. You get the sense that he is not only playing with the audience, as he meticulously lays out his story, but also seems to be teasing Britain and the United States, which have become his nemeses since he fled the US in 1978 after being accused of raping a teenage girl. Like the “ghost” who eventually finds out much more than he should about Adam Lang’s life, you get the sense the US, which so ardently pressed for Polanski’s extardition while he was under house arrest in Switzerland, might think Polanski knows more than he should about the relationship between Blair and Bush. There are a number of references, such as the “Hatherton” private plane Lang flies around in, which obviously alludes to Haliburton, but Polanski leaves it up to the viewer to tie together these loose bits of manuscript, content to let the film come to its all too fitting end.