“All the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” So sighs a newly assigned ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor, playing a man with no name), as he appraises the manuscript he’s supposed to fix, namely, the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Locked down at Lang’s Martha’s Vineyard hideaway — one hard copy in a safe, with an oh-so-tempting flash-drive attached by what looks like a string — the project is suddenly made urgent when Lang comes under scrutiny by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, specifically, sending suspected Pakistani terrorists to the CIA so they could be tortured.
As the ghostwriter makes his evaluation at the start of The Ghostwriter, you realize, unhappily, that this is the movie over-explaining itself. Indeed, his own words serve as a rough guide for the coming cat-and-mousey plot, in which villains and heroes and a series of betrayals are both too easy to figure out and too similar to Roman Polanski’s previous work. Here again, men make bad choices and women alternately suffer and reap benefits. And here again, the protagonist’s lack of knowledge is the presumed ground for your emotional investment. The ghostwriter is prompted to investigate the recent death of the previous ghostwriter (he has somehow drowned, a suspenseful precis reveals, falling or pushed off the ferry from Cape Cod), coming to believe this man had information that would shake up global relations by exposing bad individual acts and collective cover-ups.
The movie lays out a number of broad, vaguely topical targets: Lang is a charming, bright, and frustrated man, much like Tony Blair; the U.S. military is in cahoots with a company named Hatherton (yes, yawn, read: Halliburton); and no one on Lang’s staff is willing to talk much about life inside their circle. So that you can understand the ghostwriter’s own frustrations, he observes poignant set-pieces: a gardener on a gusty day unable to keep the leaves he’s gathered in a wheelbarrow or a lighthouse standing far off a gray beach.
The Ghostwriter brings you along on his moralizing ride, inclined to like Lang, inclined to distrust his overprotective head of staff, Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and quite flummoxed by the wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), whose poses are numerous and fluid, from vulnerable to furious to righteous to desperate, sometimes all in a matter of seconds. Irritated that her husband’s situation has left them in a state much “like being exiled with Napoleon in St. Helena,” she finds in the ghostwriter a sympathetic ear, perhaps a cohort among a small throng of “others.”
In an effort to maintain his independence and something like integrity, the ghostwriter tries to stay in a local hotel, but is soon forced to move into the first ghostwriter’s room inside the Lang compound by a media frenzy when the ICC charges break (this frenzy includes a Cindy Sheehan-like father, enraged that his son died for a bad war, camped out at the end of the driveway: he represents the stakes of the secrets here, though he’s an emotional distraction the movie exploits rather than respects). The ghostwriter’s move to the Langs’ place brings all manner of trouble, from his discovery of maybe, apparently telling phone numbers and photos to his increasing closeness to Ruth (“Bad idea,” he tells himself in his bathroom mirror. And you, who’ve seen Chinatown, can only mutter, “No kidding.”)
The ghostwriter’s inquiry does yield actual clues, of course, some more interesting than others, all in need of sorting (see also: Frantic, Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate). The Langs share a Cambridge University background and some fuzzy connections to a onetime CIA agent named Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) (see: Kim Philby and the Cambridge Four-or-Five). Shot mostly in Germany, the movie’s dreary exteriors and mostly exquisite interiors suggest a standard correspondence among wealth-and-power and corruption. It’s something of a relief when the ghostwriter goes to visit Emmett, too briefly, as their conversation tilts gradually from polite ambiguity to patent subterfuge (Wilkinson is, as ever, simultaneously daunting and delicate, his fluttering fingers on his chair a taut emotional symphony in themselves).
As the ghostwriter comes closer and closer to a story that makes sense — words that are in the right order — he is bothered by his employer (played by James Belushi, of all people, insisting the project be done in half the original time, that is, two weeks) as well as scary government cars driven by faceless men. He’s a smart fellow and a good writer enough writer to make the best-seller list with some earlier book, but his reading skills need work.