We’re so used to amped-up white-knucklers that the controlled approach of a filmmaker like Roman Polanski is immediately seductive. The director responsible for such mainstays as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby (and of course his own real-life news cycle) turns Robert Harris’s political potboiler involving a ghostwriter (McGregor), a former British prime minister (Brosnan) and an isolated island home into a slow-burn near-masterpiece. Shot in claustrophobic widescreen, the film showcases Polanski’s mastery of even expository scenes: A revealing conversation between McGregor’s so-called ghost and a shady figure played by Tom Wilkinson is so fraught with tension that you expect those malevolent Cocteau-esque hands from Repulsion to burst out of the wall and drag someone into oblivion.
The film stays more grounded than that, though it certainly doesn’t lack for perverse Polanski flourishes. There’s a great bit of carnal business with the prime minister’s wife (Williams) that’s filmed in a deadpan long shot. Eli Wallach pops up—frail-looking though spirited—as an old-timer who stokes the writer’s paranoia about his employer’s plans for him. And more than one character has a wry aside on the protagonist’s heritage (“Oh, you Brits!”), as if it was both a badge of honor and a reason for condescending suspicion.
There are all number of similarly colorful touches (the sick-joke ending alone is worth the price of admission) that help to deepen what one colleague suggested is the greatest airport novel ever filmed. It’s true that The Ghost Writer doesn’t possess the lingering profundity of the director’s best work—the War on Terror window dressing is just that. Yet Polanski has made a genre piece with a verve and vitality that’s in sadly short supply.—Keith Uhlich
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