Near the midway point of this film the title character chides his bathroom mirror reflection with two emphatic words: "bad idea." His immediate reference is revealed shortly thereafter, but the caption is applicable to the whole, rather preposterous venture into the life and reputation – those two imposing statues occupying opposite ends of the same garden – of another man. And that man, and the subject of our Ghost's book, is former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).
That our Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is never granted the dignity of a name is just as well; for all intents and purposes, he has never existed. As the film opens we meet him greedily tippling with his agent as the two rehash Lang's meteoric rise ("He wasn't a politician, he was a craze"), punctuated by the agent's revelation that the former resident of "Number 10" no longer has anyone to write up his amazing life. The reason? His long-time aide and ghost writer Michael McAra was found washed up on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard just last week, the victim, it would appear, of imbibing far too long into a dark night and leaning even longer over a ferry's rail. As the Ghost, who drinks as if his liver were already spectral, realizes what his agent is suggesting, he falls quiet and hesitant. I believe business seminars refer to such moments as the "golden ticket." So why is the Ghost not on the next plane to the United States, where Lang still seems to be treated like a head of government? Perhaps because to do so he must endure the scrutiny of the publisher who rejected his last work, Lang's lawyer, and the publishing house's American envoy, all of whom have their doubts about this young man who could easily pass for a booze-addled drifter. Our Ghost gets the job, of course, and as he sits alone at a Heathrow bar he sees a breaking news story on why Lang may have wanted to go to one of the handful of countries who do not abide by the International Criminal Court's demands for extradition.
A brief aside on the film's blunt political agenda: most reviewers of The Ghost Writer will chuckle knowingly at its roman-à-clef aspects, which are about as subtle as a zeppelin, but we have better things to do. Topicality is the surest means to sell a work – our Ghost starred in a mass-market paperback in Britain a few years ago – and to be utterly obliterated by history, precisely the opposite aims of great art. What we should really enjoy is the relationship between one of the most famous men in the world, a nameless, fameless compatriot, and that famous man's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). We are supposed to concur that Ruth has everything a discerning man could want – intelligence, grace, pedigree, and, while no match for her spouse's hunkiness, a certain amount of sex appeal – and we do because a laconic plain Jane would make for ludicrous satire. The first time we hear Ruth she is screaming offstage; but the first time we see her, she is leaning out-of-focus against a distant door's threshold watching the newly arrived ghost writer shake his head at McAra's manuscript. "As bad as that?" she asks coyly, a plausible way for a wife to take an interest in another man's criticism of her husband, because if he can astutely criticize her spouse's life in print, it might be easier for her to allow him other irreverences. Brosnan has long since been an actor limited by his looks (we tend to think very attractive people are somehow secretly incompetent); as Lang, however, he becomes a husband limited by his political recognition. He simply cannot care too much for his domestic crisis because statesmen of his rank have more historic agendas to pursue. It is then of little surprise that when the Ghost sets about a total rewrite of McAra's three hundred pages and asks Lang how he entered politics, Lang reveals a quaint story about Ruth and Lang's first meeting as they pamphleted Labour tenets in the rain. The problem is that this story, as the Ghost will learn subsequently, is a wholesale fabrication.
Why would Lang lie to his ghost writer who was seeking with all due sincerity to humanize his subject? An excellent question, and one not lost on our Ghost. As such, he begins sniffing around the Langs' current residence, a beachfront property belonging to yet another well-connected friend and discovers, well, that everything seems normal. If a bit too much so. It is only at his nearby hotel, when a strange older Brit interrupts the otherwise solitary alcoholic with some direct questions about the whereabouts of a certain ex-Prime Minister, that we observe the first true manifestation of our Ghost's doubts. The man disappears after muttering a rude epithet, and the Ghost is not sure he actually existed until the man barks at his car window a couple of days later as the ghostwriter and ghostwritten negotiate their way through an irate pack of protesters outside that same beachfront property. There is also a fourth side to this love trapezoid, Lang's fetching factotum Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), who does all the things dutiful mistresses are supposed to do including valiantly sidestepping Ruth's public jabs. When the twenty-four-hour news cycle announces that the British government has promised to comply fully with the requests of the ICC, Lang and his team realize that he should make haste to Washington to remind the average news cycle viewer of just what a craze he once was. He takes with him of course not Ruth, whose political advice he has "always followed, until lately," but Amelia, who is apparently married to someone who also might as well be a phantom. This leaves the Ghost all alone in the house with some security personnel, the cook, the gardener, a three-hundred page manuscript about a renowned stranger, and a very neglected former Prime Minister's wife.
While drinking is too often mistaken for a personality trait by modern writers, we may smile or frown at its metaphorical similarity to McAra's fate as well as to the crimes for which Lang is being held accountable. Indeed, more than occasionally do we get the sense that the current Ghost is literally stepping on the same slippery stones as his predecessor, once even going so far as to use the GPS in McAra's car to reconstruct the dead man's last route. Yet as opposed to McAra, who was Lang's long-time political confidant, our Ghost doesn't really have any cerebral investment in politics. He views it, as far too many do, as something out of his control, a back-slapping, gold-grubbing country club that manages things along in that uneventful, comfortable status quo so commonly incident to developed countries. Perhaps that is why he is at first impressed by the mysterious figure of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), a Harvard professor who seems to have known Lang at Cambridge. Emmett is supposed to be a Yankee yet Wilkinson's accent cannot possibly be construed as standard – one begins to think he is speaking in code. His vowels may be more or less American, but his cadence is distinctly British. Emmett also utters in perfect seriousness a four-word sentence that is so grossly illiterate as to make us think twice about the degrees on his "wall of ego." If both these mishaps are intentional signals, they are absolutely brilliant; if this is someone's notion of Ivy League superiority, it is an unmitigated disaster. Are these oddities in any way related to Lang's addressing the Ghost only as "man," a blatant Americanism? And could any publisher possibly expect a three-hundred page rewrite within a month and not be concerned about an inferior product? Living up to his name, our Ghost seems rather indifferent to all these terrestrial matters, although at one point he calls the household whose story he has come to tell, "Shangri-La in reverse." But I think we all know better definitions of hell.