In Polanski's 'The Ghost Writer,' political thriller captures its time, maker

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

A man furiously sweeps leaves off the windy deck of an elegant seaside mansion in "The Ghost Writer," a handsome, expertly calibrated political thriller. The vivid image of a fruitless battle with unseen powers recurs throughout this bracing antidote to seasonal cinematic blahs, a movie that deftly captures its time, place and maker. Although you'd never know it from the posters and ads for "The Ghost Writer," it's directed by none other than Roman Polanski -- criminal, victim, child of history, international wanted man and, if his latest film is any indication, enduringly gifted director.

"The Ghost Writer" begins in London, where an unnamed journalist (Ewan McGregor) takes on the job of penning the memoirs of a former British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). After a short hop over the pond, the Ghost, as McGregor's character is called, lands at the imposing Massachusetts island estate where Lang lives with his acidly frank wife, Ruth (a spiky and sour Olivia Williams), and staff of young and comely apparatchiks, led with velvet-soft discretion by a top aide named Amelia (Kim Cattrall).

It's on the well-kept deck of Lang's brutalist bunker-by-the-sea that the groundskeeper continually tries to tame madly blowing leaves, an image that serves as an apt leitmotif in a movie fueled in equal measure by perseverance and futility. As the Ghost settles in with Lang's double-top-secret manuscript -- which was begun by an aide who recently died in the chilly waters nearby -- he comes to believe, as one of his associates back in London observed, that there's something "not quite right" about the project at hand. Soon enough, the young writer finds himself embroiled in an international cause célèbre, as Lang is accused of war crimes having to do with secret renditions and torture.

If that sounds familiar, it's meant to: Based on a novel by co-screenwriter Robert Harris, a former political journalist who was close to Tony Blair, "The Ghost Writer" clangs and chimes with all manner of echoes from recent history, from Blair's relationship with George W. Bush to tantalizing conspiracy theories involving Dick Cheney and Halliburton. The once-removed nature of the story has the salutary effect of unburdening "The Ghost Writer" from tiresome literalness and games of spot-the-reference. Instead, viewers are invited simply to luxuriate in a stylish, sophisticated game of cat-and-mouse, made all the more piquant by its myriad nods and associations.

In 2003, Polanski won an Oscar for directing "The Pianist," a somber World War II drama that evinced a classicist's hand with rigorous narrative logic and controlled, unforced emotion. (It was also the most autobiographical film from Polanski, whose mother died in the Holocaust.) With "The Ghost Writer," Polanski proves again that his considerable talents lie mostly in letting a good story tell itself, with a minimum of authorial underlining or self-conscious flourish. The beauty of "The Ghost Writer" lies in Polanki's superb grasp of tone and detail, which in the case of re-creating an insular, privileged household in America is all the more amazing for having been realized on location in Germany.

Then again, it's probably no surprise that Polanski, who hasn't set foot in this country for more than 30 years, would know intimately the habits and rituals inside the bubble Lang and his brethren in power occupy. (He even gets the food right, with the Ghost routinely served mineral water and cut-crust sandwiches by the family's quietly watchful maid.) Polanski has lived in a bubble himself, not just since leaving the country to avoid sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, but even earlier, as a promising, hip young director taking Europe, then Hollywood, by storm. Just when he had the American Dream before him, it curdled, when in 1969 his wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant with their first child, was murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult.

Throughout it all, Polanski has made a specialty of limning anxiety, alienation and mistrust of institutions -- especially those of state power, for him a mercurial, unreliable and curiously persistent foe. "The Pianist," for example, features a protagonist who finally triumphs over indifferent and evil forces not by overcoming them but by outlasting them by means of mere survival. Even with its timely subject matter and contemporary setting "The Ghost Writer" reaches back to Polanski's earliest films ("Repulsion," "Cul-de-Sac") and his two Hollywood pictures, "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown," in its taut, understated style, innate pessimism and the essential passivity of the protagonist in the face of the forces he can't control.

It's possible to enjoy and admire "The Ghost Writer" without the subtext of Polanski's own dramatic narrative, but the movie takes on more curious meanings when seen through that lens. Whereas it's easy to understand the source of the pessimism, Polanski's identification with passivity is far more problematic. Casting himself as the victim of corrupt celebrity-obsessed justice, the director remains under house arrest in Switzerland, where he reportedly finished editing "The Ghost Writer." When Ruth Lang compares her husband to Napoleon on St. Helena, it's difficult not to conjure the image of Polanski living on his own island, in his own bubble, claiming both privilege and powerlessness in a moral balancing act that grows increasingly unsustainable.

Still, Polanski's latest movie suggests that he's capable of using his fugitive vantage point with uncommon astuteness. "The Ghost Writer" ends, appropriately enough, in another flurry of untamable leaves, just as the filmmaker's American story remains vexingly unresolved. Few filmmakers embody quite the discomfiting level of ambiguity that Polanski does, and perhaps no one is better suited to capture the uniquely paranoid style of the country he knows so well, from so far away.

The Ghost Writer

*** 1/2

(130 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for profanity, brief nudity and sexuality, violence and a drug reference.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company