I keep getting confused about what to call this movie, because in the UK the “Writer” is left off, and I think I prefer it that way — it’s not only more evocative of the previous ghost writer but also more consistent with the way the term is used in the film.
The ghostly presence of McGregor’s predecessor is also accentuated by the wise decision never to show his face in a photograph or flashback — indeed the circumstances of his demise are communicated in an efficient sequence of no more than six shots: ferry approaching dock, cars being directed out, single car left abandoned on ferry, tow truck extracting it from ferry, police inspecting it on dock, and a body washed ashore. After that discreet prologue, the rest of the film is exclusively from the point of view of the corpse’s replacement.
It starts off a little disappointingly, with a cartoonish but mercifully short performance by Tim Preece as a London editor. The scripted dialogue could bear some responsibility but otherwise the screenplay has so many nice touches: for example, I didn’t realise that the protagonist had never been named until five or ten minutes into the movie, when he signs three documents and his signature is conspicuously blocked by his arm (indeed he remains anonymous throughout the film).
The architecture of the waterfront compound set on the sand dunes of Martha’s Vineyard (in fact Northern Germany) is so suited to Panavision composition that it feels like a purpose-built set. Pierce Brosnan’s acting seems all over the place, drifting in and out of accents, but I’m not sure if this was supposed to be indicative of the character’s theatrical background. It is Tom Wilkinson in a brief but effective scene and Olivia Williams, finally redeemed from her unfair role in An Education, who emerge as the best of a good bunch. I did not even recognize Eli Wallach until his name was credited for the first time (along with everyone else) at the end.
Specific sequences stick in the mind. One of the most memorable depicts the suspenseful 21st-century equivalent of finding a map with a marked trail leading to buried treasure. It is complemented by a car chase that remains distinguished but is no less dangerous.
Another shot departs from McGregor’s point of view only to follow the audience’s interest in a document invested with great import as it is passed from one hand to another under close-up scrutiny. This single lateral tracking shot is a short film unto itself in which the personalities of a dozen characters — revealed by initial reaction, brief consideration, decision, and action — are expressed with only the hands of actors.
The final shot, reminiscent of Chinatown, felt too easy to me until I remembered that McGregor had not (only) been retracing the steps of the previous ghost writer: since the beginning of the film it was his client’s biography he had been recapitulating personally besides just textually:
As someone trained to imitate others’ voices the Ghost is an “actor” who does not follow politics until he is plucked from obscurity to impersonate a Prime Minister, which he does not just in the autobiography but also in the form of public political statements; midway through the film he observes “finally something we have in common” about their mutual distaste for white wine, while he is actually wearing the PM’s clothes (presumably — where else did they come from?); it is Ruth who actually chose him for the job in the first place and becomes his confidante; and his ultimate fate is not the result of anyone’s political machinations (like the previous Ghost) but in fact the unexpected intervention of forces outside the control of the conspiracy.