In the craptacular month of February, when Hollywood typically drowns us in all-star drool like Valentine’s Day, it’s indecent luck having two films in play directed by indisputable masters. First Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and now Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. The Polish director, currently under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. for having unlawful sex with a minor in 1977, is in deep doo-doo. But not, in this critic’s view, as a filmmaker. The Ghost Writer, based on the Robert Harris bestseller, shows Polanski in brilliant command of a political thriller that ties you up in knots of tension while zinging politics and showbiz like two sides of the same toxic coin.
Polanski, who won a 2002 Oscar for the Holocaust-themed The Pianist, is in a playful, prickly mood here that recalls his early work on Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. Ewan McGregor grabs and runs with his juiciest role in years as the Ghost, a writer hired to pen the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the unseated British prime minister now taking refuge in America after being accused of war crimes back home. Any resemblance between Lang and Tony Blair seems purely intentional, since Harris, who wrote the script with Polanski, is on the record as becoming disillusioned with Blair after the PM allegedly teamed up with President Bush to hand over suspected terrorists for torture by the CIA. One reviewer of Harris’ book cheekily labeled it The Blair Snitch Project.
Like Polanski, Lang is in exile. The former PM is holed up in a Cape Cod beach house with his manipulative wife (Olivia Williams) and an executive assistant (Kim Cattrall) who doubles as his mistress. Don’t be thrown by the Sex and the City star’s Brit accent – she was born in Liverpool. And it’s fun to see Cattrall play covert sexuality for a change of Samantha pace.
The Ghost knows he’s in over his head. His specialty is ghosting for rock stars and other celebs du trash. There’s another chilling detail: The writer who started the book with Lang has been found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Since Polanski couldn’t travel outside certain legal jurisdictions, he used Berlin for London and the island of Sylt in the North Sea to fill in for Martha’s Vineyard. But the kick in this sexy, addictive thriller comes in the telling. As the media swarm outside Lang’s beach house, everyone inside feels a trap closing in. No one but Polanski could find the adrenaline rush in such maddening claustrophobia. There are moments when you damn near jump out of your seat as the Ghost snoops around looking for incriminating truth and a chance to have it off with the wife of his subject.
All credit to a finely tuned Brosnan for packing so much intensity and wayward wit into his scenes with McGregor. Their verbal duels make for a dazzling game of cat-and-mouse.
Polanski’s skill with actors hasn’t waned. Even the smallest roles are expertly played. Timothy Hutton scores as Lang’s American lawyer, and Jim Belushi nails the role of the Ghost’s scandal-hungry publisher. Best of all is Tom Wilkinson as Paul Emmet, a Harvard law professor whom the Ghost believes holds the key to Lang’s links with the CIA. After an action-packed pursuit of the Ghost on a ferry, the movie ends on a note of shocking challenge. You can feel Polanski’s excitement to be working on a film that echoes 1970s classics such as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Whatever happens to Polanski in real life, his reel life is in excellent shape. The Ghost Writer is one of his diabolical best.