It is very frustrating that Roman Polanski drugged and raped an adolescent girl and fled the U.S. justice system, yet still occasionally produces outstanding films. We don’t want a man guilty of his crimes to continue achieving professional success; we want him to be imprisoned. Alas, while it’s been many years since he’s made a truly great film, he’s had his share of very good ones, including his latest, “The Ghost Writer,” which emulates Hitchcock and demonstrates Polanski’s mastery of the medium. As annoying as it may be, the guy can tell a cracking good story when he wants to.
Based on a 2007 novel by Robert Harris, “The Ghost Writer” concerns a former British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who definitely is not a slightly fictionalized version of Tony Blair, so don’t even think that. Lang is in the process of writing his memoirs, but his ghost writer has just died tragically while on a ferry between Lang’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard and the Massachusetts mainland. The dead man is replaced by another experienced ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor), one whose agility at shaping a narrative without drawing attention from the credited author is suggested by the fact that we never learn his name. The credits just call him The Ghost. The Ghost has no experience, or interest, in politics — his last gig was helping a magician with his autobiography — but this makes him better for the job than an insider would be, as he’ll be thinking like an everyday reader.
From this outsider’s perspective, the Ghost is puzzled by the paranoid inner workings of Lang’s operation. The Martha’s Vineyard home is like a heavily fortified bunker, the dead writer’s draft of Lang’s book locked in a drawer in Lang’s office. Even the Ghost, who is supposed to be revising the draft, can’t take the manuscript out of the room, lest it fall into enemy hands and be published prematurely. And why all the secrecy over something that’s going to be public soon enough anyway? We get a hint at that answer when, early in the Ghost’s tenure as Lang’s new co-author, Lang is publicly accused of war crimes. It seems that during a certain war in the Middle East, Prime Minister Lang ordered the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and assisted the C.I.A. in torturing them.
Well, the Ghost is in it now. Such controversy is bound to boost sales when the book finally comes out, but how closely does he want to be associated with Lang? Like any good journalist, the Ghost wants to uncover the truth — the truth about the war crimes, the truth about what happened to his ghost-writing predecessor, the truth about Lang’s whole career. And what’s up with Lang’s ice-cold wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams)? What’s up with Lang’s over-sexy personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall)? What’s up with everything?
The war-crimes business is what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin, the thing that drives the plot but that, in and of itself, is irrelevant. (It could have been any major political scandal.) This is technically a political thriller, you see, but the politics, while topical, aren’t the focus. Nor are we meant to dwell too much on the fact that Lang must stay in the United States lest he be apprehended by the International Criminal Court, a not-too-subtle reference to Polanski’s real-life extradition woes.
Instead, the focus is the mystery, the sheer enjoyment of solving a puzzle. If Polanski’s “Chinatown” was a modern-day film noir, “The Ghost Writer” (which he co-adapted with the novelist) is his homage to Hitchcock’s suspense capers. Many of the similarities are subtle: the use of old-fashioned rear-projection in driving scenes, Alexandre Desplat’s very Bernard Hermann-y musical score, the presence of a blond femme fatale (Cattrall), the way we are prevented from learning anything faster than the Ghost himself does. More broadly, the way the Ghost, an ordinary man, becomes entangled in sinister affairs with far-reaching consequences is the kind of thing Hitchcock excelled at and that movie audiences have been eating up for decades.
Ewan McGregor is good for the part, a personable Everyman with whom we enjoy taking a dangerous journey. Pierce Brosnan does well with Lang’s empty-suit politician, and Olivia Williams is so utterly fantastic at playing frosty, ball-breaking women — you should have watched Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” series just for her — that it’s hard not to be mesmerized, if a little frightened, every time Ruth Lang is in a scene. Tom Wilkinson also has a lively few minutes as a reluctant professor who might have information about Lang’s past.
What does it all add up to? What’s the take-home message? I’m pleased to report that it is this: political mystery thrillers are fun. Sure, there are deeper implications in the details: the power of words to change the course of history, the manipulation of facts for personal gain, the way law and order are enforced among celebrities and politicians. Like Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” — another Hitchcockian thriller set primarily on an island off the coast of Massachusetts — “The Ghost Writer” is the work of a skilled storyteller who can deliver commercial entertainment in a way that’s smarter and more polished than most commercial entertainment. Damn you for being so good, Polanski, you fugitive rapist you.
B+ (2 hrs., 8 min.; )