In the real life of Roman Polanski, ghosts of misdeeds past have been swirling around of late, and fans of his mostly dazzling filmography must always clarify that we’re fans of the artist, not the man. All that real-versus-reel business aside, Polanski’s newest film—his first strong work since 2002’s The Pianist—reminds us why that effort to separate man from artist is worth making. The Ghost Writer is an expertly and artfully made film, a slow-brewing but compelling thriller that avoids cheap shock tactics or clichés. It’s the work of a master in touch with the masterly side of his art.
Ewan McGregor plays a boozy ghostwriter, drawn reluctantly into the fast and lucrative gig of whipping an ex-British prime minister’s memoirs into shape. Once ensconced in a lavish, but ultimately repressive Martha’s Vineyard compound, the ghostwriter uncovers material not suitable for print and is lured into a web of lies that starts with his subject’s wife.
Echoes from Polanski films of old sneak into the experiential mix, including familiar aspects of Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown—from the tightening knot of intrigue and corruption in high places to the central idea of a lowly protagonist (McGregor’s ghostwriter, Jack Nicholson’s nervy gumshoe) going out of their depth and stumbling into bigger, uglier realities.
In the case of this film, and the Robert Harris novel it is based on, ugly realities involve a “what if” scenario, proposing links between a Tony Blair-like ex-prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) and the CIA. The subtext becomes a post-event explanation of the devil’s pact between Blair’s Britain and Bush’s U.S. over the Iraq War and other global misadventures. Political thriller twists and conspiracy theorist buzz is one thing; the pure pleasure of watching the film’s suspenseful and sensual puzzle is another.
Another Polanski film that The Ghost Writer reminds us of is Death and the Maiden, which is similarly sleek and unnerving, and takes place in the claustrophobic setting of an island but alludes to sinister doings in the world (modern war crimes and concentration camp medical experiments, respectively).
No man being an island, Polanski, the man, is on a sobering learning curve. Meanwhile, the artist is riding high in the late period of his artistic vision.