The Ghost Writer: Polanski Escapes into His Cinema Nightmares

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Kim Cattrall, left, Olivia Williams, and Pierce Brosnan star in The Ghost Writer.

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The plot of the book and the film is also weirdly similar to that of this weekend's other new film, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, which has a stranger visiting a rainswept island near Boston after someone's mysterious disappearance and trying to unravel a conspiracy that may threaten his life. That picture — with a gallery of unreliable characters weaving a web of lies around the baffled hero, who must discover the perpetrator by searching for clues in hidden notes — has been widely compared to Hitchcock and film noir; but it might also be Scorsese's tribute to Polanski.

Harris, who worked for the Sunday Times and the BBC when Blair came to power, was once friendly with the P.M. but later soured on his political decisions, especially Blair's support of the Bush Administration's plan to invade Iraq. (With some ghoulishly good timing, Blair had to spend six hours last month defending his Iraq record in the Chilcot Inquiry.) The book, published in 2007, was widely seen as Harris's score-settling.

In the movie, Pierce Brosnan's Lang — the ex-actor who became head of state — at times resembles no one so much as Ronald Reagan, especially when he flashes a grin as affable as it is concealing. There's also a Halliburton-type company, called Hatherton, that links the P.M. to George W. Bush. But Lang and Olivia Williams, in the role of his bright, prickly wife Ruth, are a good fit for Tony and Cherie Blair. Then again, they could be another political power couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton: the salesman and his less charismatic but brilliant wife. Is the woman betrayed by the man, or is she controlling him, or both? Could either a U.S. President or a U.K. Prime Minister be a Manchurian candidate, his policies programmed by an outside agency? That's enough conspiracies even for Polanski.

From the moment he enters Lang's island compound, the Ghost feels thwarted by the P.M. and his staff, led by Lang's probable mistress (Kim Cattrall). Proving that a political campaign is war by other means, they form a phalanx around Lang's achievements and vulnerabilities; their job is not to help the Ghost but to contain and confound him. His adversaries include not just people but machines. The movie begins with an empty car on the Martha's Vineyard ferry — its driver vanished, and soon found dead — and ends with another car-related death. In the two intervening hours, several mysterious autos with malevolent intent stalk our hero. His only ally is a sedan earlier driven by McAra, whose chatty GPS leads the Ghost to a major suspect: Tom Wilkinson as a Harvard professor whose path may earlier have intersected with the Langs'.

One difference between Hollywood and European films: the first has to keep you jazzed every minute, while the second assumes that, having bought your ticket, you'll stick around through the simmering accumulation of details. In that sense, The Ghost Writer is as comforting in its temperate pace and eerie mood as it is chilling in its plot particulars. Polanski feigns interest in the genre's requisite chases, but he's best at stranding the Ghost in wide frame, on a turbulent island, and tightening the noose around his neck as he gets closer to an awful truth. Alexandre Desplat's violins saw away, in approved Bernard Herrmann fashion, as appliers and absorbers of dramatic shocks; and McGregor brings all his charm and intelligence to the vague figure of a Hitchcock hero who slips into circumstance and chicanery until he morphs into a Polanski victim.

Set mostly in Massachusetts, the movie was shot at Berlin's Babelsburg studio, where Polanski earlier created the Warsaw Ghetto for his most explicitly autobiographical film, The Pianist, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2003. The Ghost Writer is unlikely to earn him such acclaim. The villainy surrounding its hero is vast but not, in Oscar terms, important; and there are a few giggle moments, as when one of Lang's women pops into the Ghost's bed. But we should hail a movie that recalls creepy political thrillers of the mid-'70s, back when some films were made for grownups and the comfortable catharsis of a happy ending was not required — think of the panoramically cryptic worldview of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, and of course, Chinatown. In its cataloguing and deft evocation of those films, and the director's entire body of work, The Ghost Writer may not be major Polanski, but it sure is essential Polanski.

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