Subtlety isn't how you describe most political thrillers. Often they're high tension movies with lots of running, shouting and gunfire. While there is some of that in The Ghost Writer, it's on a somewhat less extravagant scale. It's a movie that plays it's premise so subtly it isn't even clear if there's any sort of political conspiracy afoot or if it is just a tale of a writer who finds himself in a paranoia inducing situation.
The story follows a ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor who lands an assignment to write the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister, Adam Lang, after the previous ghost writer dies, but not before finishing a draft of the manuscript. The manuscript is kept under extreme security, with the current ghost writer only able to review a printed copy kept at a secured house on an island off the coast of New England. Shortly after the writer accepts the assignment, a major scandal erupts in which Adam Lang is accused of war crimes during his tenure as Prime Minister. As the scandal grows, the writer begins to uncover secrets his predecessor uncovered that are potentially more damaging than the war crimes accusations.
The pace of this movie is rather patient, revealing details slowly, building tension as the audience strives to make sense of them. For example, the movie opens with a shot of an SUV on a ferryboat, which doesn't move as all of the cars unload off of the boat, only after we see it towed away do we learn that it's former driver, the first ghost writer, apparently fell overboard. The audience is introduced to characters well before it's apparent what their role to play in the story will be.
The film shifts its focus equally among the various plot points so that the viewer isn't entirely sure what's a red herring and what is proof of a greater conspiracy at work. So, while you're focusing on the war crime scandal looming over the prime minister's head, a little nugget of information about the ghost writer's predecessor will pop up, leaving you unsure of which is more important. It all comes together nicely at the end, pulling enough twists to keep you guessing without resorting to cheap tricks.
I suppose I do have to mention that this is a film by Roman Polanski. While it may be hard for some viewers to put aside Polanski's personal controversies, the man definitely knows how to craft a good piece of cinema. He manages to make the story feel like it's moving along at a brisk pace even when it isn't clear to the audience what direction it's going in.
He also put together a great cast for the film. Ewan McGregor really lets you get inside his character's head, making you understand the motivations of a man who is trying to remain as objective as possible and just get a paycheck while caught in a situation where sides need to be taken. Pierce Brosnan plays the former Prime Minister. As easy as he was to like in the James Bond films, he creates a particularly loathsome character who is unapologetic for what he did during his term in office.
Rounding out the cast are Kim Katrall as the Prime Minister's personal assistant and Olivia Williams as his wife. I especially liked Olivia Williams's performance, as her character is both trying to watch out for Ewan McGregor while also being fed up with the situation she's been put into. This is the first major role I've seen her in, and hopefully she'll start appearing in more leading roles after this.
Overall, this is a movie for somebody looking for a story that straddles the line between political thriller and film noir, especially one that is less about explosions and bullets and more about telling an engaging story.