Say what you will about Roman Polanski, that he's a child-molesting scofflaw or someone whose celebrity and life traumas warped his sense of morality.
You may even think he deserves sympathy, although saying that out loud isn't suggested unless there's plenty of time to explain.
As a person, Polanski certainly has faults. As a filmmaker, at age 76 he's still a nearly impeccable artist, capable of tightening the screws on a character and the audience with amusing tension. If he made The Ghost Writer under a pseudonym, it might be roundly hailed as the classy white-knuckler it is. But it's Polanski's name above the title, with his own ghosts haunting each frame.
The Ghost Writer shouldn't be overrated in Polanski's filmography; it's several cuts below Chinatown in terms of airtight tension, and less psychologically disturbing than his early works. But it does remind viewers why Polanski matters beyond his police record, while methodically stitching a net of intrigue and teasing us about when it'll drop on its nameless, guileless hero.
That would be the ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) of a former British prime minister's memoirs, an assignment almost completed when the first author drowned, apparently a suicide or accident. The ghost, as he's called, is a perfect flunky for the conspiracy Polanski slowly unravels, a political naif enticed by big money to quickly spruce up what his predecessor left behind.
The subject is Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who was forced to resign amid protests of his support of an unidentified war, a favor to a U.S. president, and friend under fire. Adam is an obvious ringer for Tony Blair, a handsome, fast-track politician with his steely wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), acting as adviser. Ruth is aware of Adam's long affair with his assistant, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), but that topic is barely discussed.
The book's deadline is suddenly pushed up with news that Adam is being indicted by the World Court for alleged war crimes. He may have handed over four British citizens suspected of terrorism to U.S. authorities, who later used torture tactics for interrogation, breaching their human rights.
Then the ghostwriter discovers information secretly left behind by his dead predecessor. The closer the ghost gets to the truth, the better his chances of winding up the same way. Soon, the security forces shadowing the Langs take on an ominous air, and the New England village where Lang is exiled is filled with black sedans and drivers meaning business.
The mystery behind The Ghost Writer isn't as deceptive as that of Shutter Island, and contains none of that film's shocks. But they share the allure of a good yarn told with cinematic expertise, and puzzling moments that later become clear. It's a process as simple as where Polanski aims the camera, how long he holds an image to invite closer inspection. Honestly, the plot jumps the rails in the final reel — exactly who did what to whom and why is debatable after the fadeout — but Polanski never fails to keep viewers riveted to the screen.
It has become cliche to use the term "Hitchcockian" in describing suspense movies. We should remember it was Polanski who helped to initiate that cliche five decades ago. The Ghost Writer — which the director completed under house arrest in Switzerland — is evidence that Polanski's skills haven't eroded as his moral compass has.