December 25, 2013 Film ReviewsUpdates


A ghost writer is a phantom scribe whose output bears the name and signature of an Other, who remains anonymous and invisible, whose labour is compensated but whose contribution is uncredited. So the story goes.

In The Ghost Writer (2010), director Roman Polanski explores the grave ramifications of this spectral occupation, including the fate that befalls an exponent who is commissioned to compose the memoirs of a high profile celebrity.

For the unnamed British protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor, his subject is not a stellar athlete, actor, artist, musician or socialite, but a prominent and controversial politician: the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). McGregor’s ghost writer (henceforth ghost) clinches the highly sought and immensely lucrative gig with a persuasive argument: he can write a singular and affecting autobiography on account of his unfamiliarity with the genre. ‘Look, I don’t read political memoirs. Who does?’, he asks the small congregation at his formal interview, comprising the CEO of Rhinehart Publishing John Maddox (James Belushi), his agent Rick Ricardelli (John Bernthal), Lang’s solicitor Sidney Kroll (Timothy Hutton), and Roy (Tim Preece) the apprehensive and disapproving editor. ‘Adam Lang: he wants a place in history, not in the remainder tables’, the ghost contends. ‘It’s because I know nothing about politics that I’ll ask the questions that will get right to the heart of who Adam Lang is. And that is what sells autobiographies: heart.’

This rousing rhetoric wins over the surly American CEO and Lang’s taciturn solicitor, securing the ghost a contract most writers can only dream of: a quarter of a million dollars, including expenses, for a mere month’s work on an existing but unprintable manuscript written, incidentally, by a predecessor who tragically succumbed to a mysterious accident. Relocating to the isolated and heavily guarded Massachusetts village of Old Haven, home to Adam Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), the ghost’s task partly involves reading the existing manuscript and collating its incongruous paragraphs into a legible and coherent narrative. The other dimension of his undertaking entails interviewing Lang and incorporating the humane details of his life and work into the story. ‘How do we go about this’, the curious former Prime Minister enquires during their first meeting. The ghost’s reply makes the task sound elementary: ‘I interview you. I turn your answers into pros. Here and there I’ll add linking passages imitating your voice’. ‘You know the worst thing about my life?’ Lang remarks during the course of their conversation. ‘It’s so out of touch. Everything’s done for you. You don’t drive. You don’t carry money. If I need cash, I have to borrow it from the Protection boys’. Surprised by this admission, the ghost reassures the doubtful and apprehensive Lang. ‘That’s exactly what the readers want to know: how does it feel to run a country? How does it feel to be so cut off? How does it feel to be so hated? And so loved?’

The project becomes increasingly complicated, however, when the International Criminal Count conducts an investigation into Lang’s administration and activities, including his alleged involvement in the illegal extradition of suspected British-based suspects  and their subsequent torture. Far from remaining detached and anonymous, the ghost soon finds himself embroiled in the menacing and macabre world of politics: he composes press-releases for Lang, serves as his mouthpiece and, by implication, becomes an accessory. ‘You’re practically one of us, now’, Lang’s calculating secretary, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), informs the perplexed scribe. ‘You drafted the statement yesterday: that makes you an accomplice’. When, by chance, he discovers documents concealed by his deceased predecessor, Michael McAra, the ghost probes deeper into his subject’s history, uncovering incriminating facts and prominent individuals behind Lang’s political career, including a former colleague who is prepared to take any measure to remain anonymous, including silencing the ghost and terminating his research.

Based on the novel by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, The Ghost Writer is a moody and insidious thriller that canvases a powerful commentary on the duplicitous and incriminating power of words and the covert forces that manipulate the rise and fall of thespian politicians, from distinguished academics and personal assistants to those with whom they are closest and most trusting.

The film’s devastating climax and the lamentable fate that befalls the ghost suggests that while the truth may be uncovered – through interviews and conversations, via multiple readings and close inspections, at the margins and beginnings of a manuscript – there are always covert forces and phantom agents ready to quash and disperse any threat of its disclosure. In portraying the literal demise of an anonymous author and the irretrievable scattering of his incriminating documentation, The Ghost Writer perhaps motions at the forces of absence, rupture, disappearance, dissemination and spectrality that are already at work in representation, structuring all signs (linguistic and non-linguistic) and engendering their restless, peripatetic dynamism. I am reminded of the words of Jacques Derrida from his essay ‘Signature Event Context’ in the anthology Margins of Philosophy (1982): ‘To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning and from yielding, and yielding itself to, reading and rewriting’.

Today, with the ever increasing prevalence of social media are we, too, not ghosts who register marks on virtual technologies? Do our spectral traces (tweets, statuses, images, videos, voice and text) and their accelerated, virulent dissemination not render us vulnerable to a perpetual haunting?



– Dr. Varga Hosseini