It’s been some time since Roman Polanski made something as cagey and good-naturedly twisted as “The Ghost Writer.” He’s been off vacationing inside of his youthful trauma during the last decade (“The Pianist,” “Oliver Twist”), which makes his new film a cunning achievement, steered by one of the filmdom’s sharpest minds. Verbose but lovingly toxic, “The Ghost Writer” nails a perfect pitch of paranoia with a distinctly retro flair, restoring some needed maturity to the bustling business of thriller cinema.
A gifted writer, The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is handed the assignment of a lifetime when the memoirs of former British Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) need a special literary shaping. Holing up in a beach house with Lang’s aide Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and hardened wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), The Ghost begins the process of interviewing and researching, while Lang endures media scrutiny and legal heat for possible Middle East war crimes committed while in power. As the spotlight shines brightly on the Lang compound, The Ghost starts to uncover secrets left behind by the previous ghostwriter, who died under suspicious circumstances following the same informational trail, leading to an unfinished manuscript teeming with secrets.
Adapted by Robert Harris and Polanski from Harris’s novel, “The Ghost Writer” is a superbly clean piece of filmmaking, confident with a plot that weaves around political machinations and surveys a polite batch of cautious suspects. While primarily a brain-tickler, the picture also works as a suspense piece and blends in a slightly satiric take on Bush-era politics, with Lang as the Tony Blair figure crucified for his whorish leadership skills. It’s a sinister screenplay lined up perfectly with Polanski’s varied gifts as a filmmaker, opening up a playground of shifting allegiances, sexual dalliances, and mysterious antagonists to tinker with while The Ghost slowly appreciates the danger he’s stumbled into.
The forward thrust of paranoia is skillfully manipulated by Polanski, who holds to careful framing and personality quirks to fully flesh out the danger at hand. “Ghost Writer” is a more roguish film than it initially seems, taking a good 30 minutes to thaw out and begin the business of being wicked. And let’s face it, Polanski’s highly skilled at staging discomfort and forked-tongued exchanges, sweetened some by the balletic dialogue, which retains the devilish glint needed to fully devour the developing sin.
“Ghost Writer” is twisty, but never abusive with its poisonous revelations, a welcome development with a story that traffics in tired Halliburton/GWB chicanery that’s too on-the-nose for this clever film. Admittedly, the last name/affiliation parade grows wearisome toward the film’s midsection (the direction delivers more tell than show as The Ghost decodes the manuscript), but Polanski sustains a riveting tension throughout the feature, allowing matters to seemingly wind off course only to witness the puzzle pieces fall precisely into place by the film’s conclusion.
Assisting with all the heavy lifting is the flawless cast, who charge proudly alongside the director, giving pleasingly mannered performances of sublime venom, with Williams and Brosnan revealing fangs for the first time in a long time as the Langs stumble into news network crosshairs. McGregor hits all the right beats of incredulity as his character strolls into quicksand, conveying a healthy read of panic and even curls of mischief when matters spin out of control.
“The Ghost Writer” receives a refreshing mood charger through Alexandre Desplat’s bouncy score (a killer DNA match to the thrillers of the 1960s), and a closing shot of retribution that concludes the film on a deviously shocking note. “The Ghost Writer” snaps Polanski back on track after a solid decade of fruitful introspection, reaffirming an exceptional filmmaker comfortable depicting hospitable villainy and wicked paths of deception.