Good news for grown ups: It’s safe to go back in the cineplex again. There are only a handful of the old greats still cranking ’em out and, with “The Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski demonstrates he’s still got what it takes to be counted with the most masterful of them.
This is a deliciously twisty bit of Hitchcockian mischief featuring Ewan McGregor in the role of a hard drinking hack. Little does he suspect the trouble he’s asking for when he applies for a job polishing the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. Only after being hired does he learn that the writer who previously held the position recently washed up dead on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.
Not far in fact from the palatial retreat of his new boss, Adam Lang, played smartly by Pierce Brosnan and clearly modeled on Tony Blair. And only after being hired does the writer find himself in the middle of a shitstorm. Without warning, Lang discovers the International Criminal Court in The Hague is preparing an indictment against him. The world media descends on his rainswept bunker as he’s accused of sanctioning the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA for torture. Not the best time for a friendly trip down memory lane.
McGregor’s unnamed character also finds himself caught in the crossfire between Lang’s chief advisor and wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and the personal assistant (Kim Cattrall) with whom she suspects her husband is having an affair. Williams gives a wonderful performance, making Ruth at once believably savvy, wounded and seductive.
McGregor’s most significant relationship, however, isn’t with these characters or any of the sinister figures lurking about the narrative’s periphery but with the ghost who preceded him. The script-cowritten by Polanksi with Robert Harris and based on Harris’ novel-is ingenious with regard to the ways it has the dead man in effect feed his successor clues to the truth about the ex-PM and his subservience to a warmongering American administration. Some are found secreted among his possessions. Others are hidden in the manuscript he left behind. Every one puts the new ghost a step closer to meeting the same fate as the old one.
Polanski takes his time here letting characters come into focus, the atmosphere radiate menace and suspense build toward a climactic sequence no one besides readers of Harris’ book are likely to see coming. Everybody on screen is at the top of their game and the subject matter lends the fiction a ripped-from-the-headlines resonance. Near the end, there’s an unforgettable scene in which Lang speaks candidly about his beliefs concerning the use of torture in the war on terror. It will send chills down your spine. Just possibly, it will also prompt you to question your own position if only for a disorienting moment.
Flawlessly directed, handsomely designed and propelled by dialogue that snaps, crackles and pops, “The Ghost Writer” eschews contemporary thriller clichés in favor of old fashioned craftsmanship and real world heebie-jeebies. It’s fabulous, stylish fun-the rare tale of international intrigue that actually succeeds at intriguing.