by Tony Dayoub
In The Ghost Writer, the British Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former prime minister under attack for playing crony to the U.S. and its interests in the Iraq War, is beset by protesters who attack him for aiding and abetting the torture of Muslim POWs. While contending with the suspicious death of writer Mike McAra who was ghosting his memoirs, Lang rides out the tempest in Cape Cod with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams); his assistant and possible mistress, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall); and new to the mix, the unnamed ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who replaces McAra.
On the face of it, director Roman Polanski's latest film is a suspense thriller in which Lang stands in for the beleaguered British ex-PM Tony Blair. Recently, Blair has faced his own troubles in England concerning his participation in the Iraq War, defending his actions against protesters over there. But as this film entered post-production, Polanski's own troubles (his flight from the U.S. after being tried for statutory rape) came back to haunt him. Jailed in Switzerland while awaiting possible extradition, he finished editing the film in prison. It is unavoidable to identify Polanski with the character of Lang, especially in scenes where Lang is holed up in a fortress-like compound a bit out of place on the quaint New England isle. One even feels the parallel more acutely in a scene late in the film when Lang disembarks his private jet at an airport only to be faced with a large gathering of screaming picketers, moreso because the shot is almost from a POV angle just behind Brosnan's back. But wait a second, it is a POV shot from the perspective of the movie's actual protagonist, the Ghost (as I'll call him here). Could it be that Polanski not only finds easy identification with Lang, but a more complex one with McGregor's Ghost?
You see while it is rather simple to draw the parallel with Lang—rich guy with a weakness for women who has to seclude himself far from home to avoid a public trial—it is also rather evident the Ghost represents a younger version of Polanski: the young, commercially driven artist who may have sown the seeds of his own destruction when he sold out to the mainstream. Had Polanski resisted giving in to the temptations a career in Hollywood afforded him, would he have skipped the tragedy of Sharon Tate's murder or the alleged rape he is accused of? The Ghost is conflicted with his new assignment, churning out a rewrite of a rather prosaic author's work, subjecting himself to shorter and shorter deadlines set by a sleazy boss (a wonderful cameo by a bald Jim Belushi), yet still trying to maintain an ethical distance from his subject. A lot of lip service is paid to ethics at least, but the Ghost still hits on the sexy Amelia quite aggressively, and drops his pants for the wickedly intelligent Ruth pretty quickly, a proclivity shared by the director. Is this Polanski the younger punishing Polanski the elder for his indiscretions?
It is no surprise then that Robert Harris' original potboiler, The Ghost found such a receptive audience in Polanski, and why Polanski's own life experiences have deepened the subtext of the film. The plot is a bit of wish fulfillment for the bedeviled director who here displays a black sense of humor about his current circumstance. Not only does he make Lang a bit of a pompous cad, a former actor who got into the game simply to meet more women; he makes the Ghost a writer idealistic enough to want to bring the complicated truth about the ex-PM to light, yet morally compromised enough to enjoy the creature comforts of staying at the PM's household in his absence despite whatever distance he claims he wants to keep.
The Ghost Writer's ultimate joke is the way Polanski doles out punishment to both of his alter egos. Lang's undoing is not entirely unexpected in the way it is depicted. But the cocky Ghost gets his, too, in a quite acerbically witty way which ties into the writer's smugness. In this way, The Ghost Writer acknowledges the director's own complicity in perpetuating an image which has unfortunately contributed to his present dilemma.