Anyone’s who’s ever seen Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown would likely agree that the film is a classic. A standout of its time, it boasted stunning cinematography, compelling characters and a mystery that a central male lead (Jack Nicholson as Private Investigator J.J. Gittes) was eager to uncover.
36 years later and Polanski is up to the same thing. While The Ghost Writer is by no means a poorly crafted movie, it lacks the novelty that would make it a standout. The writers try, of course; the plot involves how developed countries deal with suspected terrorists, and Lang is quite noticeably an echo of Tony Blair. But the problem is precisely that it involves this dilemma instead of actually discussing it.
Centred around allegations that former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has been handing over suspected terrorists to the CIA, the film presents to us a mystery – is the ex-PM really behind it? The audience stand-in is known only as “the Ghost” (Ewan McGregor), an unexceptional, mild-mannered man who initially sets out to complete the PM’s memoirs. But with the knowledge that the body of the first Ghost was found washed ashore and more hints at foul play along the way, the Ghost’s suspicions are raised and he sets about to uncover the mystery.
Chinatown too starts off with an unwilling protagonist. The same way Gittes reluctantly accepts a role to determine who’s behind mysterious deaths surrounding a water crisis, the Ghost wants little to do with it until his curiosity is sufficiently roused. Both films show the heroes being chased by shady-looking men in suits, both involve the male leads sleeping with women who might not be telling them everything they know, and both end on notes that hope to galvanize us into combating some grave injustice.
Despite the Ghost’s character being one of ordinariness, McGregor doesn’t imbue him with enough life to make him relateable. At the very least, we need someone with whom we can actually connect to experience the full impact of the plot points. Characters should not be a tabula rasa on whom we can project our own identities.
Also in the cast is Kim Cattrall as Adam Lang’s secretary and mistress. While the character has a minimal but important role in having us question the former prime minister’s ethics, Cattrall herself is a poor casting choice, one likely made in a bid to appeal to Sex and the City fans. Her Canadian accent is thinly veiled and her aristocratic poise is laughably laboured.
Brosnan, as charming an actor as ever, is regrettably low on screen-time. It’s almost as though his increased presence would be an asset to the film, even if that meant taking away from the mystery that’s intended to engage us.
All in all, the film would work much better as a political thriller that engages us in dialogue pertinent to the current socio-political landscape. Instead, it uses a compelling premise merely as the backdrop for a mystery that only scratches the surface of what’s underneath. In one of the film’s best lines, Lang speculates that if he could be prime minister again he would create two airports, one in which profiling is conducted and another where it’s absent, and then see which one his detractors would send their kids to. But that’s where the socio-political dialogue stops, and soon after that, the film does too.