A master of sleek suspense
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 25, 2010
"I'm your ghost," announces Ewan McGregor's character in "The Ghost Writer," in which he plays a steadfastly anonymous young author assigned to pen the memoirs of a retired British prime minister. Indeed, there are hauntings aplenty in this sleek, masterful thriller that recalls such classics as "All the President's Men" and the more recent "Michael Clayton" in its pared-down, paranoid style. Like an expert driver behind the wheel of a purringly expensive automobile, director Roman Polanski invites viewers to settle back and simply enjoy a ride whose sinuous curves he navigates with supreme assurance and skill -- banishing, at least for the moment, thoughts of the skeletons that haunt his own life.
The Ghost, as McGregor's protagonist is called, has taken on the memoir project after the first author's mysterious death. The day the Ghost seals the deal, he's whisked to an island off Massachusetts, where former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) lives in an elegantly appointed concrete bunker with his wife (played with biting asperity by Olivia Williams) and a staff of comely assistants, led with velvet-gloved authority by Lang's personal aide, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). As the Ghost sets to work on the project, he realizes that Lang's distant reticence, a tight deadline and curiously tight security around the project will be the least of his problems.
It's difficult to overstate how good "The Ghost Writer" is, if only because the things it does well are so simple: Working with co-writer Robert Harris, here adapting his own novel, Polanski smoothly threads viewers through a story that on paper might seem ludicrously contrived but that with his exacting execution comes alive with flawless detail, convincing performances and an uncanny prescience.
(Lang is clearly based on Tony Blair, but the film also evokes the spirits of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney and such private enterprises as Halliburton and the Carlyle Group.)
From the chic austerity of the Langs' undisclosed location to the gradually revealed nexus between academia, politics and corporate influence, "The Ghost Writer" offers an unusually astute glimpse of power at its most alluring and corrosive. Unlike "Shutter Island," another stop on this season's archipelago of island-based thrillers, "The Ghost Writer" leaves viewers with all the right questions.
Contains profanity, brief nudity and sexuality, violence and a drug reference.