Good news for grown-ups: It’s safe to go back to 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 his hiring does he learn that the writer who previously held the position recently washed up dead on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard.
In fact, the body wasn’t found far from the palatial retreat of McGregor’s new boss, Adam Lang, played smartly by Pierce Brosnan and clearly modeled on Tony Blair. Soon the writer finds himself in the middle of a shitstorm. Without warning, Lang discovers that the International Criminal Court in the Hague is preparing an indictment against him. The world media descend on his rain-swept bunker as he’s accused of sanctioning the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their delivery to the CIA for torture. Not the best time for a peaceful trip down memory lane.
McGregor’s unnamed character also finds himself caught in the crossfire between Lang’s wife and chief advisor, 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 on the narrative’s periphery — it’s with the ghost of the writer who preceded him. The script — cowritten by Polanski with Robert Harris, who also authored the source novel — is ingenious in finding ways for the dead man to feed his successor, in effect, clues to the truth about the ex-PM and his subservience to a war-mongering American administration. Some of those clues 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 that only 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.