Every year there is a movie or two that gathers critical acclaim for inexplicable reasons. The Ghost Writer made both of Entertainment Weekly's year-end lists, fourth on the Village Voice poll, fourth on Film Comment's poll and though it didn't place in Sight & Sound's it's on several of the individual lists.
So why? Did they choose this as a token classed-up genre film to praise? Think Polanski is due more recognition? Needed something to fill out their list? Actually believe it's seriously political? Listed to too many other critics?
The film plays out almost like a ghost story - moody, slow-moving, portents of danger, a mysterious death. In fact I actually wondered for much of the first hour if we'd find out at the end that the ghost writer (he's not named) would turn out to be an actual ghost. (One of the DVD extras reveals that Robert Harris and Polanski screened Sunset Boulevard before filming though apparently never going that far with the narration they later abandoned.) The catch is that unlike some similar horror movies that play off mood--such as the late Jean Rollin's--The Ghost Writer pays attention to the story as important and it really takes a long time to get to the point. There are the elements of a thriller but stretched out until they almost become pointless and I really doubt that was the intention. (Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a smarter, funnier and far more radical reimagining of the thriller.) The film really would have been improved if half an hour was cut, not to the point of making it more slam-bang action but at least so we're spared watching Ewan McGregor spend long stretches seemingly trying to remember where he's supposed to be standing.
I suppose the other reasons for the acclaim may be the idea that it's character-driven and political. But the ghost writer is pretty much a blank, given no family, no political opinions, probably no friends and even just filling in for an earlier ghost writer. More or less the only other characters are a barely written assistant, the former prime minister who would have seemed almost the same except for Pierce Brosnan and then his wife as really the only one who comes across as a traditional "fully developed" character (though again much of the credit will have to go to Olivia Williams who manages to be both abrasive and, well, haunted at the same time). The political angle is actually kept to the right tone in the film but is certainly over-rated by many critics. Certainly many of us wondered why Tony Blair always seemed so supportive of the US and if this answer is implausible it's one that you'll pause for just a second.
I have to admit that the film builds to a clever ending, the kind that too many viewers might be tempted to dismiss as obvious but of course that's only after seeing it. And the final shot is a nice touch. Responding to critics like this makes the film sound bad which it's not but then it's also not really worth making an effort to see.