Andy Bockelman: ‘Ghost Writer’ is haunting, provocative mystery

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'The Ghost Writer'

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 128 minutes

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson

Who determines things like facts, truth and history? Ideally, these are concepts that everyone could agree on, but as the characters of “The Ghost Writer” find out, it’s just not that easy.

The eyes of the world are on former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who is facing monumental criticism because of recent developments in the war on terror that came about as a result of choices he made while in office. His forthcoming autobiography has people wondering if he’ll be admitting to something, but when Lang’s ghost writer turns up dead, the whole ordeal turns into an even bigger publicity jackpot for the publishing company.

The new writer (Ewan McGregor) hired for the project is wary about the heatedness surrounding Lang and what it could mean for him considering his predecessor’s fate. The amount of security around Lang, who’s holed up at a beach house on the Eastern Seaboard, hardly assuages his worries, but in trying to condense and organize the politician’s rambling memoirs, he turns up more information than he’s supposed to know.

And some forces don’t want those details disclosed.

McGregor is outstanding as a man whose career has left him entrenched in the background to recount the lives of others with practically no identity of his own. In fact, we never learn his name, getting to know him simply as The Ghost.

Brosnan is deceptively charming as Lang, a thinly veiled depiction of Tony Blair, who seems far too vapid and self-interested to seem any kind of real threat. And that’s precisely why The Ghost feels the need to be on his toes.

Olivia Williams is quietly persuasive as Lang’s wife, Ruth, angry at her husband for bringing about an unending stream of protestors and latent threats against them both yet still remaining in his corner even despite his obvious infidelity. Still, whoever thought up the phrase “behind every good man…” didn’t have her in mind.

The entire cast adds to the feel of this potboiler, with supporting roles finely filled by Kim Cattrall, Jim Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Ian Holm, Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson.

Echoes of Alfred Hitchcock abound in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ 2007 novel “The Ghost,” the script for which the director and author compiled. Hitch’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Suspicion” are especially appropriate likenesses, considering the story elements.

Amid the inspiration provided by the heat surrounding Blair’s administration, there is a prevailing sense of paranoia as The Ghost feels the need to look over his shoulder more and more, whether in London after receiving his assignment or in the exceedingly menacing cottage overlooking the Atlantic. But even in this ominous environment, Polanski infuses a sense of humor into the proceedings, adeptly creating laughs between bouts of suspense like so many of his best films, enhanced by musical composer Alexandre Desplat’s taut score this time around.

What really makes his newest entry a winner is the synchronicity linking Lang and Polanski himself, with the British leader’s laying low in America mirroring the filmmaker’s notorious 1977 flight to Europe to avoid jail time in the States. Given the timing of his recent arrest for the charges that led to his self-imposed exile, it’s almost a bizarre case of life imitating art.

Regardless of how you may feel about the circumstances of Polanski’s life, movies like “The Ghost Writer” don’t come around that often. If he has to remain in the shadows like his title character, that’s his fate, but even if it feels wrong to support him as a person, his latest contribution to cinema deserves acknowledgement.

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