Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer has its own haunt to contend with. The Oscar-winning director is under house arrest in a Swiss chateau nearly 33 years after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old. The legal controversy over his crimes, potential extradition, and the ensuing public debate has cast a stigma over the movie, but his case dissipates as the ominous opening scene unfolds.
Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, the protagonist becomes isolated on an island, trapped in chaotic rainstorms, and left to the thrilling devices of a legendary filmmaker. Beguiling circumstances brought them both to the typically disposable movie month of February, but they make for a satisfying mystery double feature with reverent Hitchcockian stylings and taut, purposeful editing.
Ewan McGregor is gripping as an unnamed professional ghostwriter contracted to assist former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) in finishing his memoirs. “All the words are there, just not in the right order,” the ghost says, subbing in for his recently (and mysteriously) deceased predecessor in a particularly turbulent time in the politician’s life.
Lang is being investigated for connections to terrorist torturings during his term and brought up on charges of war crimes, a scandal that confines him — and the people who work for him — to a remote island reachable only by ferry. The exile is not unlike Polanski’s past and present situation, and the filmmaker mines the limitations and suffocating public scrutiny for heightened elements of tension and anxiety.
Bodyguards line the walls of the private estate and linger in the background, providing a sense of danger simply through their constant presence. Amelia (Kim Cattrall attempting and failing an accent), Lang’s sassy personal assistant and mistress, imposes a strict set of boundaries and quips lines like “I hope it’s not your last” when the writer steps into a private jet. Olivia Williams plays the former PM’s classy, piercing wife Ruth who takes an interest in the writer and his extracurricular activities.
An excellent recurring score by Alexandre Desplat adds a layer of urgency, building over suspenseful scenes of the Ghost hurrying from an unseen threat or glancing over his shoulder as he uncovers another piece of a complex conspiracy. Based on the award-winning novel by Robert Harris (who co-adapted with Polanski), the script gradually connects the dots between political figures, corporate executives, and academics, linking the plot details into a riveting story about power and corruption.
The Ghost Writer is one of Roman Polanski’s more commercial films and from a similar vein as his 1974 classic Chinatown. Summit Entertainment has dialed down the adult language at times replacing curses with distracting poorly-synced dubs as if it was reworking the film for a television audience. Much of the violence happens off screen, which is excusable because the focus is more on not how, but why a character was killed. Sporadic humor is also infused as well so as to not to weigh down the film in a permeating sense of dread.
Regardless of how you feel about his personal situation, see this film to support its compelling performances, clever writing, and superb storytelling crafted not just by Polanski, but a multitude of talented cast and crew members.
4 out of 5.