THE NEW YORK TIMES By Manohla Dargis
The darkly brooding sky that hangs over much of “The Ghost Writer,” the latest from Roman Polanski, suggests that all is grim and gray and perhaps even for naught. But this high-grade pulp entertainment is too delectably amusing and self-amused, and far too aware of its own outrageous conceits to sustain such a dolorous verdict. The world has gone mad of course — this is a Polanski film — so all we can do is puzzle through the madness, dodging the traps with our ironic detachment and tongue lightly in cheek.
The Ghost of the title, never named in the film, is played by Ewan McGregor at his ingénue best. A writer for hire — his oeuvre is summed up by the vulgar wit of his latest effort, about a magician, “I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered” — the Ghost is tapped for cleanup duties. The initial ghostwriter behind the unfinished memoirs of a former British prime minister, Adam Lang (a superb Pierce Brosnan), has washed up dead on an American beach. The publisher wants a completed book and presumptive best seller, and Lang, an increasingly divisive figure at home and abroad, needs the kind of tidying up that such a media event might provide. The Ghost, an agreeable, convenient blank slate (no family, no history), seems the man for the job.
And what nasty work it proves to be! Based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, who shares screenwriting credit with Mr. Polanski, the film opens under a menacing cloak of darkness that rarely rises. An abandoned car in the first shot leads to the first ghostwriter’s beached body being lashed by ocean waters in Martha’s Vineyard, a macabre setup that in turn leads to the Ghost receiving a thrashing in London, as he’s insulted (by an editor who thinks he’s wrong for the job); bullied (by the publisher who wants a fast turnaround); and punched (by a mugger who snatches a manuscript, mistaking it for Lang’s). By the time the Ghost meets Lang, who’s holed up at Martha’s Vineyard, he is as jumpy as the rest of us. (The film was largely shot in Germany.)
Mr. Polanski is a master of menace and, working with a striking wintry palette that at times veers into the near-monochromatic — the blacks are strong and inky, the churning ocean the color of lead — he creates a wholly believable world rich in strange contradictions and ominous implications. Among the most initially confusing is Lang, a professional charmer whose beaming smiles, with their sinister undercurrent, and fits of rage convey depths that the Ghost soon begins to plumb, an endeavor that takes the shape of an investigation. This amateur sleuthing leads to unsurprising trouble, including with Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), a brainy beauty whose relationship with her husband holds its own secrets and is transparently meant to invoke that between Cherie Booth and Tony Blair.
The parallels with Mr. Blair and Lang spice up the story, especially as references to Iraq, torture and the Central Intelligence Agency are folded into the mix and placard-waving protesters gather outside Lang’s hideaway. Fingers are pointed, though sometimes it seems not only at Lang but also at Mr. Polanski, who is under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting word on whether he will be sent back to Los Angeles to face sentencing for having had sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Certainly the shots of Lang’s detractors, with their furiously distorted faces and accusatory placards (“guilty,” “wanted”), gives the film an extra-cinematic tang, though as with so much here, it’s also evident that Mr. Polanski is having his fun.
And he’s delivering this pulpy fun at such a high level that “The Ghost Writer” is irresistible, no matter how obvious the twists. Everything — including Alexandre Desplat’s score, with its mocking, light notes and urgent rhythms suggestive of Bernard Herrmann — works to sustain a mood, establish an atmosphere and confirm an authorial intelligence that distinguishes this film from the chaff. Unlike many modern Hollywood and Hollywood-style thrillers, which seek to wrest tension from a frenzy of cutting and a confusion of camera angles, Mr. Polanski creates suspense inside the frame through dynamic angles and through the discrete, choreographed movements of the camera and actors. He makes especially effective use of the enormous windows in Lang’s house through which the sky and ocean beckon and threaten.
It’s easy to speculate that Mr. Polanski was attracted to the theme of rewriting one’s life history. Reading a work of art through the lens of biography is seductive, particularly when an artist ventures into the explicitly personal, as he did in “The Pianist,” his 2002 film about a musician who, like him, survived the Holocaust. But such interpretations can flatten poetry into prose and also serve as strategies to neuter artists, whose works of imagination are “revealed” as nothing more than banal facts. This isn’t to deny the personal in art, only an insistence on the elusiveness of creation. Mr. Polanski’s ventures into the horrific in films like “Repulsion” might have something to do with his history, but they are also a matter of affinities, inspirations, attitudes, competencies, tastes, pleasures.
In this respect “The Ghost Writer” seems to be as much about Mr. Polanski’s life as, well, that of Tony Blair, which only means that there are amusing points of convergence. Tracing the lines between fact and fiction makes for a dandy parlor game, one that Mr. Polanski obviously wants us to play, at least for a while, because such resonances have their rewards. They thicken the texture of the work, even if they don’t define it. Such thickening might seem especially critical with material as thin as “The Ghost Writer,” but these are the tools of a director working with every element at his disposal, including a colorful miscellany of emoting, popping, memorable faces (notably those of Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach and David Rintoul).
It would be easy to overstate the appeal of “The Ghost Writer” just as, I imagine, it will be easy for some to dismiss it. But the pleasures of a well-directed movie should never be underestimated. The image of Mr. Brosnan abruptly leaning toward the camera like a man possessed is worth a dozen Oscar-nominated performances. And the way, when Lang chats with the Ghost — his arms and legs open, a drink in hand, as if he were hitting on a woman — shows how an actor and his director can sum up an entire personality with a single pose. Mr. Polanski’s work with his performers is consistently subtle even when the performances seem anything but, which is true of this very fine film from welcome start to finish.
“The Ghost Writer” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Adult words and deeds.
THE GHOST WRITER
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Mr. Polanski and Robert Harris, based on the novel by Mr. Harris; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Herve de Luze; production designer, Albrecht Konrad; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Mr. Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde and Timothy Burrill; released by Summit Entertainment. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Ewan McGregor (the Ghost), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Tom Wilkinson (Paul Emmett), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), James Belushi (John Maddox), David Rintoul (Stranger) and Eli Wallach (Old Man).
VILLAGE VOICE By Nicolas Rapold
It's hard not to picture Polanski under house arrest in Gstaad editing his diverting new thriller, in which a former British prime minister dodges extradition while having his memoirs rewritten. Then again, when your life is like a mash-up of the History Channel's entire catalog of shock programming, autobiography will probably influence your fictions, and Polanski seems inspired as he maintains implausible momentum with a cloudy premise. Ewan McGregor diffidently plays the so-called ghost to exiled politician Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), living in cushioned seclusion off the gray New England coast. The writer is hacking through the bombast left by his (dead) predecessor when Lang's past war-on-terrorism overstepping raises Blair-style static. Saved by often delightfully bitchy British dialogue, the movie sees McGregor's (arbitrarily written) semi-naif stumbling onto conspiracies and dueling with Lang's wife and mistress (Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall, both sharp). What actually happens is less important than the barest glimmers of that old Polanski magic: ambient paranoia (aided by the Cul-de-Sac–y land's-end setting) and uneven power struggles (one involving a very crafty Tom Wilkinson as an old Lang associate). The wrap-up is one strange, ah-fuggit mess, on top of Google-powered plot moves, but Polanski's work therapy could have been a lot worse.