If you take your comedy black and your thrills subtle, Roman Polanski’s top-notch political thriller The Ghost Writer is an absolute don’t-miss. The controversial writer/director, who completed the film while under house arrest in Switzerland pending possible extradition to the United States on a 33-year-old teen sex charge, has crafted a sophisticated film that values quite menace and relentless unease over the heavy-handed shock gags preferred by lesser filmmakers. While it will probably never be mentioned in the same breath as Chinatown and Repulsion, it’s a deliciously enjoyable return to the kind of high-class, low-octane matinee mystery we see regrettably little of these days.
Ewan McGregor stars as the titular character, an unnamed freelance journalist hired to ghost-write the memoir of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after the project’s original writer is found dead under mysterious circumstances. It’s a hard sell for his agent, and even the ghost himself suspects he’s not really suited for the job; after all, the crown jewel of his career thus far has been a magician’s autobiography titled I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered. But the ghost’s agent is very good and the money is even better, so the hero soon finds himself whisked from his London home to a foreboding, high-tech compound on Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang and his crew are holed up in a self-imposed exile. Once a very popular leader of the Labor Party, Lang is now reviled both in his own country and abroad for his support of America’s actions in the Middle East.
What should have been a relatively straightforward assignment quickly turns out to be anything but. The ghost’s predecessor completed a draft of Lang’s memoir before his death, but the manuscript is both a mess and a puzzle. Lang is alternately confrontational and elusive when the ghost begins his interviews, and matters are soon complicated even further when news reaches Lang’s camp that the International Criminal Court wants to prosecute the former PM for war crimes stemming from his cooperation with the C.I.A. in the abduction and torture of British nationals. The ghost becomes further embroiled in Lang’s life when he uncovers the same inconsistencies in the ex-pol’s stories that might have gotten his predecessor killed. He knows it’s a bad idea, and he knows he’s playing a dangerous game with people who are smarter and far more cunning than he is, but, like any Polanski hero worth his salt, the ghost can’t resist digging deeper into Lang’s life.
Lest you walk out disappointed, let’s be very clear about the sort of movie The Ghost Writer is. It’s not an action film, and it’s really a bit of a stretch to call it a suspense thriller. It’s a mystery at heart, and a cerebral one at that. While other contemporary thrillers dole out contrived shocks and poorly conceived plot twists as if they had some sort of cinematic Tourette's syndrome, The Ghost Writer has nothing but contempt for such ploys. The pacing is leisurely and the editing unhurried as the script looks into every cranny of the ghost’s new world. There’s much that bears investigation. Besides the obvious questions—what happened to the ghost’s predecessor? Why is the former PM lying about seemingly inconsequential things?—there are other puzzles at hand, other dramas being played out against the backdrop of the movie’s larger mystery. The ghost also gets himself mixed up in a cold war between Lang, his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), the ex-PM’s assistant and presumed mistress.
In many ways, The Ghost Writer is an ideal counterpoint to the profoundly disappointing Shutter Island. While Martin Scorsese’s homage to classic thrillers is all sound and fury, Polanski’s takes the opposite approach. His subtle and fantastically creepy film recalls the sophisticated thrillers that made Alfred Hitchcock a legend. He ratchets up the tension with a bare minimum of physical violence (there’s plenty of the emotional and verbal sort, though), relying instead on ambience and superbly crafted, richly layered dialogue. Using a German island as a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, Polanksi crafts an oppressive, hostile setting that is both far less dramatic and far more effective than Shutter Island’s grand guignol mental hospital. Meticulously designed and exquisitely photographed, The Ghost Writer’s wintry, rain-swept dunes and cold, sharp-edged fortress become characters in their own right. An excellent, string-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock collaborations, further cements the inevitable comparisons to Hitch’s oeuvre.
In spite of those comparisons, though, The Ghost Writer is 100 percent Polanksi, complete with all of the filmmaker’s favorite conventions: claustrophobic isolation, corruption of any sort you care to name, a hero who finds himself in a pit of vipers and just can’t resist poking them to see what happens. Say what you will about Polanski and boycott his wonderful new film if you feel you must, but The Ghost Writer serves as a grade-A reminder that Polanksi is a master filmmaker to every last nerve ending.