Roman Polanski's been in the news a lot lately but not for the best of reasons. Between his September arrest in Switzerland and the media rehashing of the case that made him flee the U.S. in the first place, it's been possible to forget that his powerful gifts as a filmmaker were what made him famous in the first place.
With the deliciously unsettling "The Ghost Writer," however, a dark pearl of a movie whose great flair and precision make it Polanski's best work in quite a while, the 76-year-old director forcefully reminds us what all the fuss was about.
Made by a filmmaker suddenly returned to the height of his powers, "The Ghost Writer" is a thriller wrapped around a roman à clef about contemporary politics wrapped around Polanski's perennial blanket cynicism about the helplessness of individuals against the entrenched strength of the powerful. His effortless blending of personal preoccupations with audience preferences recalls, as so much of this film does, the classic work of Alfred Hitchcock.
It's not only that Alexandre Desplat's driving score reminds us from its opening moments of the dynamic compositions of Hitchcock composer of choice Bernard Herrmann, it's that "The Ghost Writer" is the kind of impeccable adult entertainment, able to alternate edge-of-your-seat episodes with bleakly comic moments, that Hitchcock used to specialize in and that Polanski himself realized so successfully in "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby."
Like that last film, "The Ghost Writer" is based on a successful novel, this time written by Robert Harris, who collaborated with Polanski on the screenplay and retained the book's focus on a former British prime minister and intentional dead ringer for Tony Blair named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and the ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to pump up his memoirs.
Both actors do excellent work, as do costars Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams, but what is especially noteworthy is the care taken by Polanski and casting director Fiona Weir with every single performer who appears on screen, from a knockout cameo by 94-year-old Eli Wallach to featured players like Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, David Rintoul and James Belushi to an irresistible moment by Polanski's daughter Morgane as a hotel receptionist trapped in period costume.
These people not only act beautifully, they all work in concert with the director toward creating the across-the-board mood of nagging unease, of nefarious doings just outside our line of sight, that has always been one of Polanski's strengths.
Starting with the opening shot of a somehow unnerving ferry docking at an unnamed American island (it's supposed to be Martha's Vineyard, though exteriors were shot on the German island of Sylt), everything in this film feels suspect, even nominally blameless items like a car's talkative satellite navigation device and a pair of silent Asian housekeepers named Dep and Duc.
Before we meet Dep and Duc or their employer, the former prime minister, we're taken into the world of the never-named ghost writer, who is up for the job because the body of the previous writer, a close associate of the P.M. named Mike McAra, has washed up on shore after apparently falling off that ferry.
The new ghost admits to knowing nothing about politics (his last book was a magician memoir titled "I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered") but he's hired by a team that includes Belushi's bullet-headed publisher and Hutton's wily attorney because he promises to emphasize the human side of the man.
Adam Lang proves to be something of an airhead, someone who prefers exercise to all else, but the two women in his life are anything but dull. Lang's wife Ruth ("An Education's" excellent Olivia Williams) would be acerbic and protective under the best of circumstances, but she is feeling especially edgy because she suspects her husband's having an affair with his svelte blond personal assistant Amelia (a tart Kim Cattrall).
No sooner does the ghost arrive at Lang's American island retreat than a bombshell drops: The former P.M. is accused of ordering the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA for torture, a charge that if true would make him liable to prosecution for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in Geneva. "What," the ghost screams over the phone to his agent, "have you gotten me into?"
McGregor, a busy actor who doesn't always pick his projects carefully, is excellent as the Ghost With No Name. It's a tricky role, demanding he hold our interest as a decent and capable everyman while allowing for him to be gullible enough to get caught up in the powerful undertow of forces beyond his control.
More than that, the film elegantly hints but never pushes that there just might be some kind of extrasensory connection between this ghost and the one who came before.
Speaking of connections, it is especially heartening to see a letter-perfect Wallach bring the same kind of brio to a small part as an island resident he brought to "Mystic River" back in 2003. That film was the start of a directing renaissance for Clint Eastwood, and with any kind of luck this film just might signal a new beginning for Polanski as well.