Whatever else may (and must) be said about Roman Polanski, one thing will always be included: The man is an exceptional director. His gift for pacing and his skill at creating atmosphere have elevated what might otherwise be forgettable pulp films into classics of their genres. His latest, The Ghost Writer, displays Polanski's unrivaled ability to take a mediocre script and infuse it with style and suspense. It also displays a stunning lack of self-awareness.
When a successful ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor whose character is never named) is hired to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) only two months prior to publication, he knows something is amiss. It's not just that his predecessor on the job died in a suspicious suicide, it's also that Lang's staff keeps the seemingly bland rough draft under lock and key.
Within a day of his arrival at the isolated Martha's Vineyard mansion that serves as Lang's base camp, the ghost discovers that his subject is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, primarily for authorizing the use of waterboarding against suspected terrorists and turning them over to the CIA for torture. In between dodging anti-war activists and the unmarked black sedans that have started following him, the ghost begins to suspect that both Lang and his manuscript are hiding secrets that threaten much more than the ex-PM's reputation.
Despite its ludicrous pretension to serve as an indictment of the Bush and Blair administrations, The Ghost Writer (rated PG-13 for language and sexuality) is a good thriller. With the exception of Kim Cattrell, whose British accent is so irregular I wondered at one point whether it was intentional and would turn out to be a clue in the mystery, the cast is phenomenal. McGregor brings an amusing edge of sarcasm to his role that saves the film from pitching over into laughable earnestness, and it's hard to imagine a better fit for the charming but dangerous Lang than Pierce Brosnan.
But what really makes The Ghost Writer work is the intense, foreboding pall Polanski manages to cast over every scene. This is intrigue for grown-ups where our attention is riveted by increasing stakes rather than increasingly loud noises. That is, until the director overplays his moral indignation and reveals that he is either oblivious to what the public thinks of his real-world crime or defiant of it.
For the most part, it is a reviewer's job to consider the creation apart from the creator, but this proves an impossible task with The Ghost Writer. Elements of the plot parallel aspects of Polanski's life so closely, and the ethical conclusions he reaches in this fictional world are so contradictory to those he reached in regard to himself, his hypocrisy can't help but intrude on the experience.
A key point of the story is a powerful man being shielded from justice on the basis of his stature in the world. For those who may have forgotten, the French-born Polanski fled the United States in 1978 to avoid further sentencing for his admitted rape of a 13-year-old girl. Because of his cinematic achievements he has avoided extradition, though since last December he has been under house arrest in Switzerland. That Pierce Brosnan's character's renown is based in politics must make him less worthy of pardon to Polanski than, say, a man whose renown is based in the arts.
The specter of a CIA-controlled prime minister eluding prosecution from The Hague by holing up in a Cape Cod compound demands outrage. Yes, force him from his place of hiding and make him answer for his wrongdoing is the reaction the film tries to wrest from its viewers. That Polanski sees this film as a relevant geopolitical allegory is obvious. That he apparently fails to see how that theme relates to him is astounding.