The film was a critical and commercial success and won numerous cinematic awards including Best Director for Polanski at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival and also at the 23rd European Film Awards in 2010.
A British ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired by the publishing firm Rhinehart, Inc. to complete the autobiography of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor and Lang's aide, Mike McAra, has recently died in an apparent drowning accident. The writer travels to Old Haven on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) are staying, along with Lang's personal assistant (and implied mistress), Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). Amelia forbids the writer from taking McAra's manuscript outside, emphasising that it is a security risk.
Shortly after the writer's arrival, former Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh) accuses Lang of authorising the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists and handing them over for torture by the CIA, a possible war crime. Lang faces prosecution by the International Criminal Court unless he stays in the US (or one of the few other countries that does not recognise the court's jurisdiction). While Lang is in Washington, the writer finds items in McAra's room suggesting he might have stumbled across a dark secret. Among them is an envelope containing photographs and a phone number the writer discovers is Rycart's.
During a bike ride, the writer encounters an old man (Eli Wallach) who tells him the current couldn't have taken McAra's body from the ferry where he disappeared to the beach where it was discovered. He also reveals a neighbour saw flashlights on the beach the night McAra died, but later fell down the stairs and went into a coma. Later, Ruth admits to the writer Lang had never been very political, and until recently always took her advice. When he tells her the old man's story, she suddenly rushes out into the rainy night to "clear her head." Upon returning, she reveals Lang and McAra had argued the night before the latter's death, and the ghost writer and Ruth have a one night stand while Adam is away.
The next morning, the writer takes the BMW X5 McAra used on his last journey. Unable to cancel the pre-programmed directions on the car's sat-nav, he decides to follow them. He arrives in Belmont at the home of Professor Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson). Emmett denies anything more than a cursory acquaintance with Lang, despite the writer showing him two pictures of the pair among photographs found in McAra's possessions, as well as another on the wall of Emmett's study. When the writer tells Emmett the sat-nav proves McAra visited him the night he died, Emmett denies meeting McAra and becomes evasive. The writer leaves, and successfully eludes a car that is pursuing him. He boards the ferry back to Martha's Vineyard, but when he sees the pursuit car drive aboard, he flees the boat at the last moment and checks into a small motel by the ferry dock.
With no one else to turn to, the writer redials Rycart's number, asking for help. While waiting, the writer does research on Emmett and links his think tank to a military contractor. He also finds leads connecting Emmett to the CIA. When Rycart arrives, he reveals McAra gave him documents linking Lang to so-called "torture flights," where terrorist suspects were placed on private jets owned by Emmett's company, to be tortured while airborne.
Rycart further claims that McAra found new evidence, which he wrote about in the "beginning" of the manuscript. The men cannot, however, find anything in the early pages. The writer discusses Emmett's relationship with Lang, while Rycart recounts how Lang's decisions as Prime Minister uniformly benefited US interests. When the writer is summoned to accompany Lang on his return flight by private jet, he confronts Lang and accuses him of being a CIA agent recruited by Emmett. Lang derides his suggestions.
Upon leaving the aircraft, Lang is assassinated by a British anti-war protester, who is in turn shot by Lang's bodyguards. Nevertheless, the writer is asked to complete the book for posthumous publication, as in light of Lang's death it will be a certain best-seller. Amelia invites him to the book's launch party in London, where she unwittingly tells him the Americans tightened access to the book, as the "beginnings" contained evidence threatening national security. She also tells him Emmett, who is in attendance, was Ruth's tutor when she was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard.
The writer realises the clues were hidden in the original manuscript in the opening words of each chapter, and discovers the message: "Lang's wife Ruth was recruited as a CIA agent by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University." He concludes Ruth shaped Lang's every political decision to benefit the USA under direction from the CIA.
The writer passes a note to Ruth revealing his discovery. She unfolds the note, and is devastated. When she sees the writer raising a glass, she is kept from following him by Emmett and other assistants. As the writer leaves the party he attempts to take a taxi, without success. As he crosses the street off-camera, a car accelerates in his direction to an impending collision. As witnesses react in horror, the pages containing McAra's manuscript are blowing in the wind, leaving the writer's fate unconfirmed.Ewan McGregor as The Ghost, an unnamed ghostwriter.Pierce Brosnan as Adam Peter Bennett Lang, a former British Prime Minister.Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang, Lang's wife.Kim Cattrall as Amelia Bly, Lang's personal assistant.Timothy Hutton as Sidney Kroll, Lang's American lawyer.Tom Wilkinson as Paul Emmett, a professor at Harvard Law School.Jon Bernthal as Rick Ricardelli, the ghostwriter's agent.James Belushi as John Maddox, Rhinehart's New York executive.Robert Pugh as Richard Rycart, UN Envoy and former British foreign secretary.Tim Preece as Roy Quigley, managing director of Rhinehart's London business.David Rintoul as The Stranger, a grieving father who lost his son during the War in Afghanistan.Eli Wallach as The Old Man at Martha's Vineyard.
Pierce Brosnan plays the character of Adam Lang, who has echoes of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The character is linked to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war on terror and the special relationship with the United States. The author of the book on which the film is based has said he was inspired at least in part by anger at Mr Blair's policies, and calls for him to face war crimes trials.
Robert Pugh, who portrayed the British Foreign Secretary, Richard Rycart, and Mo Asumang, who played the US Secretary of State, both physically resemble their real-life counterparts, Robin Cook and Condoleezza Rice. Like the fictional Rycart, Cook had foreign policy differences with the British Prime Minister. The old man living on Martha's Vineyard is a reference to Robert McNamara.
Polanski had originally teamed with Robert Harris for a film of Harris's novel Pompeii, but the project was cancelled because of the looming actors' strike that autumn.
Polanski and Harris then turned to Harris' current best seller, The Ghost. They co-wrote a script and in November 2007, just after the book's release, Polanski announced filming for autumn 2008. In June 2008, Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Tilda Swinton, and Kim Cattrall were announced as the stars. Production was then postponed by a number of months, with Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams replacing Cage and Swinton as a result.
The film finally began production in February 2009 in Germany, at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. Germany stood in for London and Martha's Vineyard due to Polanski's inability to legally travel to those places, as Polanski had fled the US in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. The majority of exteriors, set on Martha's Vineyard, were shot on the island of Sylt in the North Sea, and on the ferry MS SyltExpress. The exterior set of the house where much of the film takes place, however, was built on the island of Usedom, in the Baltic Sea. Exteriors and interiors set at a publishing house in London were shot at Charlottenstrasse 47 in downtown Berlin (Mitte), while Strausberg Airport near Berlin stood in for the Vineyard airport. A few brief exterior shots for driving scenes were shot by a second unit in Massachusetts, without Polanski or the actors.
On his way to the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski was arrested by Swiss police in September 2009 at the request of the US and held for extradition on a 1978 arrest warrant. Due to Polanski's arrest, post-production was briefly put on hold, but he resumed and completed work from house arrest at his Swiss villa. He was unable to participate in the film's world premiere at the Berlinale festival on 12 February 2010.
The film premièred at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival on 12 February 2010, and was widely released throughout much of Europe during the following four weeks. It went on general release in the US on 19 March 2010 and in the UK on 16 April 2010.
The film has received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 83% of critics gave positive reviews based on a sample of 196 reviews with an average rating of 7.4/10. Its consensus notes that, "While it may lack the revelatory punch of Polanski's finest films, Ghost Writer benefits from stylish direction, a tense screenplay, and a strong central performance from Ewan McGregor." Another review aggregator, Metacritic, gave the film an average rating of 77% based on 35 reviews. For Andrew Sarris the film "constitutes a miracle of artistic and psychological resilience." Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and declared: "This movie is the work of a man who knows how to direct a thriller."
Journalist-blogger William Bradley has dubbed it "one of the best films I've seen in recent years" in a review for The Huffington Post that dealt with the film's artistic and political dimensions. The Guardian said: "Roman Polanski's deft take on Robert Harris's political thriller is the director's most purely enjoyable film for years." Writing for LAS Magazine, Theon Weber gave the film a 6.8 (of 10) rating and called it "a thriller with topical ambitions; it takes place in a jittery, bomb-fearing Britain and America, often in airports or official buildings, where the weary rituals of security screenings refuse to let the characters or the audience relax."
However, John Rentoul from the UK's The Independent, who describes himself as an "ultra Blairite with a slavish admiration for Tony", and John Rosenthal, from the conservative Pajamas Media, both denounced the film because it was made with financial support from the German government. Rentoul also launched a scathing attack on Polanski describing the winner of Berlin's Silver Bear as "propaganda" and a "Blair hating movie". Still, what the critics did not explain was that although the production company, Elfte Babelsberg Film GmbH, received €3.5 million from the German state, any major film production within Germany is entitled to apply for financial assistance from the German Federal Film Fund. Since the assistance is considered a grant, there is no requirement that it be repaid. As a result of this funding policy, numerous English-language films have been at least partially shot in Germany over the last two decades, among them The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Aeon Flux, Valkyrie, The Pianist, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Constant Gardener, Unknown, Inglourious Basterds, and Anonymous.
The movie has won numerous awards, particularly for Roman Polanski as director, Ewan McGregor in the lead role, and Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang.