Roman Polanski’s terrific new thriller “The Ghost Writer” deftly reminds us what has long made the director so effective, in movies like “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown”: His singular knack for taking pulp and transforming it into tense, paranoid drama.
Based on a 2007 Robert Harris novel, the story follows a writer known only as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to rewrite the political memoirs of the former British prime minister (a nicely shifty Pierce Brosnan).
The previous ghost writer committed suicide – or so it was said – on a Cape Cod ferry boat.
A more cautious man might walk away from the scenario, which sounds much too good to be true: a quarter-million dollars for just four weeks of work.
But we’re deep in Polanski territory, a world where good people are inexorably drawn into nightmarish circumstances. The Ghost quickly hops a plane to Massachusetts, where the prime minister is holed up.
“The Ghost Writer” was filmed before Polanski’s most recent spate of legal troubles (though editing was reportedly completed at the Swiss chalet where he is currently under house arrest). Like many of his pictures – most notoriously his bloody “Macbeth,” his first film after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson – it invites an autographical scrutiny that he may or may not have intended.
As The Ghost arrives at the sterile, modernist mansion, and finds himself locked in a room with the manuscript – which is apparently so explosive that it is kept in a safe – the film turns into a fascinating meditation on the notion of exile.
The prime minister, it turns out, is about to come under investigation by The Hague for possible war crimes: It’s alleged that he arranged for the kidnapping of four British citizens and then allowed them to be waterboarded by the CIA. If he returns to England, he might be arrested.
The Ghost finds his attentions diverted, first by the politician’s steely wife (Olivia Williams) and then by his discovery of an old photograph of a well-known university professor (Jim Broadbent), who is said to have connections to the CIA.
“The Ghost Writer” doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of Polanski’s most paranoid classics, perhaps because the character of The Ghost remains a little too vaguely defined.
That said, the movie burns with so much style and sophisticated technique that you’ll be more than willing to forgive this shortcoming.
It ends with one of the most wicked shots in recent memory, a brutal final twist that sends hundreds of manuscript pages fluttering in the London wind and alters our understanding of everything that has happened until then.
You may not be able to stomach Polanski’s past misdeeds, but this movie confirms that he is one of the greatest filmmakers alive.