The best thing that can be said about Roman Polanski’s pic version of Robert Harris’ bestseller “The Ghost” is that auds won’t need to read the original novel. With a few exceptions, and necessary tightening, it’s pretty much all up on the screen — page by page of plot, line by line of dialogue — in one of the most literal adaptations (by the British journo-turned-novelist himself) since the Harry Potter series. Low on sustained tension, and with a weak central perf by Ewan McGregor in the titular role, “The Ghost Writer” looks set for moderate biz at best in Europe, with much briefer haunting of North American salles.
Pic’s literalism is also its biggest handicap. Eight years since his last major success, “The Pianist,” the 76-old-helmer brings not a jot of his own directorial personality or quirks to a political pulp thriller whose weaknesses (let alone lack of any real action or thrills) are laid bare when brought to the screen is such a workmanlike, anonymous way.
With Polanski himself unable to travel Stateside or to Blighty, the largely New England-set story was entirely shot in Germany — and sometimes looks like it. Despite the abundance of art direction and props to convince viewers that the locations are in wintry Martha’s Vineyard and not Sylt, northern Germany, interiors — especially of the central house — look unmistakably modern-Teuton in their clean lines and small details.
Some second-unit work was done in the U.K. and France, and post-production finished while the helmer was under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland — probably the first such instance of remote direction since imprisoned Turkish director Yilmaz Guney in the ’70s.
Sans any front-end titles, story gets right down to business as the body of Michael McAra washes up on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. McAra had just finished ghost-writing the memoirs of former Brit prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), to whom he was an old friend-cum-political advisor, and the publishers, who’ve ponied up $10 million for the tome, urgently need another ghost to jazz up the tedious manuscript.
Repped by his young American agent, Rick (Jon Bernthal), a successful British ghost writer (McGregor) — unnamed both here and in the novel — is interviewed by U.S. publishing exec John Maddox (James Belushi, in a ripe but brief cameo) and Lang’s Washington attorney, Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton). The Brit is hired on the spot for a month’s work for $250k, and flown to a luxurious private house in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang is based during a U.S. lecture tour.
But the ghost is already suspicious of what he’s getting into, after being mugged in a London street immediately after the meeting. At the New England coastal retreat, McAra’s manuscript and Lang himself are guarded around the clock in a security operation run by Lang’s (very) personal assistant, blonde iceberg Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall, with an almost flawless cut-glass Brit accent). Mooning around, with her claws mostly sheathed, is Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams).
Harris’ novel made headlines at the time for its barely disguised similarities between Lang and former Brit p.m. Tony Blair, as well as between Ruth and Cherie Blair. But Brosnan is much more movie-star Brosnan than a Blair stand-in (was Michael Sheen unavailable?), though Williams, in the pic’s best performance, adopts subtle hints of Cherie in her wardrobe and tart manner.
As the ghost starts interviewing Lang for color and juicy tidbits, the heat is turned up when Lang’s onetime foreign minister, Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), demands Lang be brought to trial for war crimes. Rycart claims Lang colluded in the kidnapping of four alleged Pakistani terrorists and their handover to the CIA for torture, during which one died. When the ghost learns that McAra had also uncovered a deeply buried truth about Lang’s political past, he begins to fear for his own life as well.
All the ingredients are here for a rip-roaring political thriller, with corruption in the highest places and a cast of sexy and/or suspicious characters, but for the first hour there’s little accumulated atmosphere or any sense of a bigger story hiding in the wings. Polanski simply transfers Harris’ undistinguished prose direct to the screen and, though the pace picks up marginally in the second half, there’s little wow factor in the revelations as they appear.
With McGregor a sappy lead and Brosnan hardly believable as a British ex-politician, it’s Williams who provides the most pleasure in a gradually evolving role that at one point takes on a calculated sexiness. Tom Wilkinson hints at what the movie could have been in a beautifully played scene with McGregor that’s packed with polite menace, and 94-year-old vet Eli Wallach pops up in a strongly delivered cameo.
More music by Alexandre Desplat, whose score is notably absent during the initial first hour, could have helped a little. Widescreen lensing by Polish d.p. Pawel Edelman (“Oliver Twist,” “The Pianist”) is fine at capturing the bleak wintry exteriors and cool, geometrical interiors. But what the picture most needed was a complete cinematic rethink and, yes, even some action to move it along.