It is both easy and impossible to separate Roman Polanski the person from Roman Polanski the filmmaker when considering his briskly entertaining new thriller The Ghost Writer, and that’s entirely to the film’s benefit. It’s easy because Polanski remains a consummate craftsman, just as capable of making swift, witty, precisely stylized diversions now as when he made Knife In The Water nearly 50 years ago. And yet there’s no mistaking the oppressive sense of isolation and exile that hangs over the proceedings, and how it relates to a man who has known public disgrace and life on the run. The Ghost Writer may not go down as one of Polanski’s masterpieces, but if it does end up being his swan song, it’s the ideal denouement to a life and career of unsettling resonance.
Based on Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, the film opens with cars pulling off an island ferry onto the mainland; every car, that is, but one. The driver washes ashore a couple of days later, presumed dead from an accident or a suicide, but of course there’s more to the story. As it turns out, the deceased is a close confidant to a disgraced former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), and he’d been on the island to help put the finishing touches on Brosnan’s highly anticipated memoir. Brosnan’s publisher, eager to get the book out fast, hires Ewan McGregor, who normally specializes in quick-and-dirty celebrity autobios, to punch up the tome and turn it around in a month. When McGregor arrives, he finds the book a terrible bore, but he runs into much bigger problems once he learns of the deeper, darker intrigue surrounding Brosnan and his inner circle.
The connections to Tony Blair and his insidious dealings with America and the CIA in the lead-up to the Iraq War are unmistakable and damning; if Polanski set out to catch the conscience of the king, he’s made the perfect play to do it. And in the role of the suffering wife, Olivia Williams creates a wonderfully modern femme fatale, a quietly powerful woman whose shame has curdled into duplicity. With much of the action confined to the dark spaces of Brosnan’s island compound, The Ghost Writer has the suffocating scale of a chamber piece, one Polanski could pull off in his sleep. Yet in its entertaining mix of the topical and the personal, the film is a vital record of the times, both for its maker and the world from his window.