Polanski’s return to adult suspense is an unpredictable, finely crafted political thriller
By Jimmy Gillman
An accomplished ghost writer gets more than he bargained for when he accepts an assignment to assist a controversial former British Prime Minister with his forthcoming memoirs; a job that turns out to be fraught with intrigue and danger at almost every turn.
From its brilliantly mounted opening scene to its very last, The Ghost Writer, based on author Robert Harris' critically acclaimed novel, The Ghost, produces a thickening atmosphere of unease and suspense in absolute masterly fashion, making it not only one of director Roman Polanski's very best, but one of the best movies of the year.
There's a particular rhythm to this film few directors are able to achieve, a phenomenal fusion of story, composition, editing and score that seamlessly creates an all too real series of events, none of which ever appears illogical or contrived.
It begins ominously as the original ghost writer turns up dead on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, where former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has been sequestered with his fiery, politically astute wife (Olivia Williams), a large security contingent and his loyal staff, headed by Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall).
Into this mix walks the ghost writer (Ewan McGregor), who's promised a quarter-million dollars if he can rewrite the memoir and have it ready for printing in a month’s time. The Ghost (the writer is never referred to by name) knows it’s nearly an impossible deadline and, worse, that his predecessor might have died under mysterious circumstances. But the allure of a plumb assignment and big financial payoff is too much to resist.
With that he jumps into the project only to quickly discover the manuscript is trite and superficial, filled with innocuous anecdotes that only occasionally qualify as amusing or interesting. One thing is for sure—he can find nothing in the material that appears threatening to anyone or cause for international alarm.
This premise is put firmly in place during the first act of The Ghost Writer, which like the book utilizes small plot threads that at first appear as either unimportant details or possible avenues to other aspects of the emerging plot, opening up numerous possibilities.
As the action unfolds further, viewers learn of a possible off-the-record relationship between Lang and Bly; of references in the memoirs to a man named Paul Emmert, who claims he barely knows Lang. Then there are the mysterious persons who’ve been harassing the writer at his hotel and about town, probing the whereabouts of the former head of state. There’s even a failed attempt to steal the manuscript.
By the time the second act begins, news breaks that the International Court in The Hague is considering charging Lang with war crimes for allegedly subjecting four British citizens suspected of being terrorists to arrest and rendition by the CIA, sending shock waves through the Lang camp and calls for his return to England.
Polanski uses these developments to methodically weave a web of psychological uneasiness; a type of cinematic tension that is at times almost palpable. Like so many of his films, what often begins as benign and truly ordinary slowly metastasizes into something sinister and deadly.
While The Ghost Writer does build towards a central revelation, there are other secrets unearthed along the way. Some of these audiences may see coming, but at 76 Polanski is still sharper than most directors half his age, with enough up his sleeve to keep you guessing and completely engrossed in the puzzle he's constructed.
Exceptionally well acted by a seasoned cast (it's Ewan McGregor's finest performance to date), and beautifully shot and scored by a first-rate crew, The Ghost Writer could be described as a modern political version of an Alfred Hitchcock film, but when it’s over, you’ll know it was Polanski's through and through.