The Ghost Writer is a tense, understated thriller, eschewing violence for political intrigue. Director Roman Polanski channels his classic noir Chinatown, with Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer standing in for Jack Nicholson’s private detective, with the corruption here inspired by Tony Blair rather than California’s seedy underbelly. There’s also an inversion of Polanski’s “predicament” in Pierce Brosnan’s ex-PM confined to America to avoid the reach of the International Criminal Court.
The visuals are distinct from Chinatown’s desert tones. Here the palette is dominated by blacks and greys; grey storm clouds above a grey house overlooking a grey beach. Screenwriter Robert Harris originally intended to collaborate with Polanski on a tale of ancient Rome, and that aesthetic has carried over with Brosnan’s manor evoking weathered ruins.
The narrative is straightforward, not sensational. Unlike most thrillers, it has a ring of authenticity, largely avoiding schlocky plot twists for a trail of clues leading to a conclusion that feels inevitable – and plausible – rather than contrived. The film ends with its best scene, a grimly memorable image, right after its worst, a clunky denouement that sacrifices McGregor’s character development alongside some sub-Da Vinci Code nonsense. It’s a minor misstep in an otherwise tightly constructed thriller.