Given his current situation, it may be un-PC of me to sing the praises of Roman Polanski, but I don't care. I saw his The Ghost Writer today—before it got chased out of the theaters—and I have to rank it as one of his best works. It's also the kind of film that Alfred Hitchcock would've made today.
With the support of an excellent cast led by Ewan McGregor, Polanski creates, along with original novelist Robert Harris, a claustrophobic political thriller that draws you in quickly and then slowly tightens the screws until you're gasping for air. McGregor plays a ghost writer hired to clean up the memoirs of one Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) a Tony Blair-ish former prime minister now living in exile on Martha's Vineyard. He wants nothing more than to clean up his tarnished reputation and assure his noble place in history.
Lang's original scribe—and former chief of staff—has been found drowned on the beach, the result of an apparent drunken accident. He'd completed a draft that was unacceptable to Lang's publisher, who had already ponied up $10 million for the rights, and wants to insure the book's success. Enter The Ghost, a hack who has no affinity for political biographies, but knows how to craft a bestseller. He manages to talk himself into the job.
The Ghost travels to the Vineyard to read the first draft and interview Lang. Rooting around for interesting factoids that will humanize the bland biography, he discovers an envelope his predecessor had taped to the underside of a dresser drawer, and the items inside draw him deeper and deeper into a conspiracy he's initially too naive to fully understand. And when Lang becomes the focus of war crimes investigations in Europe, he becomes a virtual prisoner on the island—and in Lang's world.
Brosnan is terrific as the disgraced leader whose impassioned secret phone calls and angry outbursts lead the Ghost to suspect that there's something fishy going on. Tom Wilkinson provides fine support as a professor who at first claims not to know Lang at all but eventually reveals that he knows a whole helluva lot. Olivia Williams (whom I loved in the wonderful 2003 Peter Pan) plays Lang's disillusioned wife who carries some heavy secrets of her own. And Kim Cattrall is a real surprise as Lang's devoted assistant, who keeps a tight rein on everything and everybody—especially her boss. It was also nice to see the legendary Eli Wallach as a longtime Vineyard resident who provides additional information to the Ghost about his predecessor's mysterious death.
McGregor is such an intensely watchable actor, and here he continues to refine his craft. In the first minutes of the film, the Ghost establishes himself as a mercenary who's only in it for the money. But we are drawn into his personal drama as he realizes that nothing—and nobody—can be taken at face value.
The intelligence McGregor projects as the plot unfolds keeps us invested in every twist—even the shaky ones. For example, did you know that you can Google absolutely every secret sinister worldwide activity and government cover-up that ever happened? But it doesn't dispel the tension.
Another minor complaint I have is not with the film itself but with the American releasing company's cleanup of the dialogue in order to be awarded a PG-13 rating. Evidently you can say "fuck" twice, but no more. I saw at least four scenes (two with Brosnan) where the expletive was unconvincingly replaced with a less offensive word. Come on...did the distributors think the lower rating would help to bring in the "Transformers" generation?
Most all of the action takes place in close quarters: Lang's monastic beach house, dark hotel rooms and anonymous offices. Even when it moves outside, the characters still interact while riding in cars. And since Polanski was unable to come to the United States for location shoots, the exteriors of Martha's Vineyard as seen through the windows of Lang's home are green-screen work, which coincidentally (or not) brings to mind Hitchcock's love of artificial locations. Hitch hated to go on location. And speaking of Hitchcock, Alexandre Desplat's mischievous score is wonderfully evocative of Hitch's favorite composer, Bernard Hermann.
Critics have commented that Polanski's life is mirrored in the the character Lang's situation in much the same way the director's bloody and brutal 1971 Macbeth served as a kind of catharsis after the horrifying murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family in 1969. Considering Polanski was forced to edit the film while in seclusion in Gstaad, the themes of claustrophobia and paranoia may have been exacerbated by his own feelings at the time.
Polanski certainly has experienced a lot of authentic tragedy in his life, and he's managed to express it through his films. He escaped the Krakow ghetto as a child after the death of his mother, and his father almost died in the camps, which helped to drive his passion for The Pianist (2002).
But the themes of paranoia and conspiracy were well established long before his legal trouble began. 1965's Repulsion is still a shattering portrait of a disturbed young woman's descent into madness. I saw it at New York's Film Forum in 2007 and it hadn't lost a bit of its intensity. His masterpieces Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) both deal with conspiracies that initially seem to be figments of the leading characters' imaginations but become all too terribly real.
To summarize, I'm not going to get on a soapbox and defend the man here, but I will defend the artist and the contributions he's provided to the language of film. I'd hate to think that we would seek to erase important achievements in cinema in order to clean up some human behaviors we're not necessarily happy with.
That's called censorship.