"I'm your ghost," says Ewen McGregor's unnamed ghost writer to ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) when they meet on the tarmac at the Edgartown Airport on Martha's Vineyard. Lang, who has just arrived by private jet and is later described as having "never had a thought in his pretty head," looks like he's just emerged from a night's sleep and a shower. McGregor's writer -- weary, rumpled, fading fast from his own jet-lag, easy to underestimate and actually looking a bit insubstantial -- has been dragged along to meet Lang on this appropriately dark and stormy night by Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). Lang pauses a beat, doesn't quite grasp his meaning. Ruth Lang rescues the moment, deftly unsnags Lang's puzzlement by re-casting the writer's fairly straightforward self-introduction, at his expense, as a lame attempt at humor -- "He's not usually so humorous" -- allowing them all to move on.
Of course it turns out she's been managing such moments throughout Lang's whole career in public life, since their mid-70s student days at Cambridge. Now he's ensconced in his publisher's beachfront vacation compound, trying to finish an overdue memoir between sorties out on a lecture tour and a just-unfolding crisis of war crimes accusations that brings angry protesters and media frenzy to the compound's gate. McGregor's writer steps into this situation to replace the first ghost, a long-time loyal aide who's washed up on the beach.
More than a few reviewers have noted that Martin Scorcese's "Shutter Island" and Roman Polanksi's "The Ghost Writer" opened on the same weekend in US commercial release last month, and a couple have admitted they even wished they could say Scorcese's was the better film. One went so far as to call "The Ghost Writer" -- reluctantly, grudgingly -- "even, at moments, wise." "Shutter Island" got here right away -- reminding me of the younger Scorcese whom I suspected had an evil twin who directed the clunker scenes sandwiched in between the brilliant ones -- but Polanksi's film has just pulled into Carousel's multiplex this past Friday. And perhaps because "The Ghost Writer" is what Roger Ebert calls "a Well-Made Film," the notion that it might be "about" something surfaces quietly and later. Beyond being an exceptionally well-executed and stylish political thriller, an obvious what-if speculation on former British PM Tony Blair's connections with the CIA and the Bush White House torture policies, and quite possibly also a comment on Polanski's own legal troubles and exile from US soil, "The Ghost Writer" is a film of ideas. Polanski directs from a script he wrote with Robert Harris that adapts Harris' own novel -- and makes more of "the ghost in the machine" than the ready catch-phrase that term has has lately been reduced to.