*The Ghost Writer (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
It's frustrating to know that Roman Polanski makes great movies at least in part because he's such a creep. Here is The Ghost Writer, a classic-seeming new thriller with the recriminative gall also to be an inside joke about how we've let the real world turn into something like a Roman Polanski movie.
Ominous intrigue ensues when a nameless young writer (Ewan McGregor) steps in for a mysteriously deceased predecessor to finish the memoirs of an embattled former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), who has exiled himself to a swanky modernist bunker on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Turns out the PM's grim little slate-gray hideaway is a sanctuary from a CIA rendition scandal and the International Criminal Court. That, as the ghost writer gradually discovers, is just the first thread of a very tangled web. And what twisted fun to watch the poor bastard stuck in it.
Although the film is adapted by the director and Robert Harris from Harris' novel, The Ghost Writer's masterfully proportioned combination of unsettling solemnity and deadpan cheek is pure Polanski. However sick we are of seeing his name in headlines, it's clear that the movies have missed him.
With cinematographer Pawel Edelman supplying a leaden atmosphere of exquisite menace, Polanski doesn't bother with cheap, expected shock tactics. Instead, and with riveting results, he intelligently assembles the quaintly old-fashioned paranoia of movie-thriller-style conspiracy. And from the foreboding opening to the gleefully mordant final shot, the old son of a bitch never seems to put a foot wrong. His tools include knifelike dialogue, succinct characterization, methodical pacing, a twitch-inducing score by Alexandre Desplat, and what surely must be the most fantastically cinematic use of an in-car computer navigation system in movies to date.
Of course, The Ghost Writer also has a fine group of actors. With an arguably career-best performance, Brosnan stands in not just for Tony Blair (with a dash of Reagan and Clinton, too), but also for the notoriously banished filmmaker himself. It's amazing how much unique vitality he brings to the part, and how keenly he reveals the corrosiveness of public power and charismatic mystique.
Olivia Williams, giving everything and nothing away, excels as his tetchy Lady Macbeth-like wife — the fulcrum of the film and its deepest source of mystery. Finally, any lost hope for McGregor's potential is at last restored by his shrewd turn as the appropriately apparitional cipher at this story's core.
Not withstanding a few forgivable plausibility problems that are par for such a course, The Ghost Writer hums right along with its maker's surety and muted showmanship. There is an implied promise that satisfaction — however sinister — will be guaranteed. Never mind weak-link Kim Cattrall as the politico's executive assistant and implied mistress; relish instead that tantalizingly too-brief moment between McGregor and Eli Wallach as an island old-timer with some useful and unsettling information. Watch in wonder as Tom Wilkinson turns up as a subtly evasive old crony.
Apparently plot and character can get along. All it takes is a great director. Even if he is a creep.