Thanks to Roman Polanski’s recent legal troubles, the director’s latest film, political thriller The Ghost Writer, has taken on a level of resonance it doesn’t really deserve: Is this movie about a beleaguered politician, hounded by the press and backed into a corner, in exile from his own country and unable to return home, a metaphor for Polanski’s own feelings of persecution and his decades-long exile from the U.S.? Enticing as it is to think so, probably not.
The good thing about The Ghost Writer is that it doesn’t need that extra layer of meaning, although Polanski’s penchant for creating suspense from claustrophobia and isolation does bring a nice sense of paranoia to the story of the nameless title character (Ewan McGregor), who gets more than he bargained for when he agrees to pen the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The previous ghost writer has died under mysterious circumstances, and barely a day after the new writer flies to meet his subject on an island off the Massachusetts coast (ably played by Germany, thanks to Polanski’s inability to work in the U.S.), Lang is being indicted by a world court for war crimes, related to his alleged facilitation of the rendition and torture of four British citizens accused of terrorism.
There are loads of other secrets in play, and Polanski and cowriter Robert Harris (working from Harris’ novel) mix political allegory (Lang has more than a little in common with Tony Blair) and standard thriller conventions effectively, executing all the twists with style. Maybe you’ll be able to see some of them coming, but the movie always plays fair, and the structure is as elegant as the ultra-modern house that becomes a sort of de facto prison for Lang, his embittered wife Ruth (an extraordinary Olivia Williams) and the ghost writer himself, who takes to playing amateur detective even as he becomes more and more certain that’s what got his predecessor killed.
The movie’s politics turn out to be much less important than its John Grisham-style conspiracy trappings, but that’s not a bad thing: This isn’t a movie with something important to say about torture, or about the war on terror. It’s a movie about a normal, likeable guy in way over his head, who uncovers all sorts of things he was better off not knowing, and has to pay the price for that. McGregor fills that role expertly, staying just blank enough to fit a character who has no name, but with sufficient guile to get the audience from one plot point to the next.
Despite McGregor’s omnipresence, the movie is really about its supporting characters, including Brosnan’s outwardly jovial politician with a hidden temper, and Williams’ conniving but irresistible wife, who may be pulling all the strings. Tom Wilkinson also captivates in a small role as a college professor who may hold the keys to the secrets in Lang’s past. Other than a handful of bit players with accents that betray the film’s non-U.S. casting process, only Kim Cattrall, as Lang’s assistant, seems really out of her depth.
All of his personal tribulations aside, Polanski remains a master craftsman, and he brings a level of skill to this material that raises it above what could have been a trashy thriller. Each shot is composed perfectly to evoke the sense of helplessness that gradually envelops the writer, and the much-lauded final image is a perfect capper. This movie doesn’t sum up Polanski’s career or his life, except to say that he’s a stellar filmmaker, above all else.