In a movie year that promises more 3-D, more CGI, more kick-you-in-the-gonads action, the most thrilling scene may end up being an unbroken tracking shot of a note passed from hand to hand across a banquet hall. That moment comes in the closing minutes of The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's latest (and possibly last) film, as confident and pleasing a foray into genre as he's ever done.
This time it's the political thriller that Polanski is inhabiting, reviving, subtly subverting. Based on the novel by Mark Harris (who co-wrote the screenplay with the director), The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor as the unnamed title character, an anonymous author behind several quick-'n'-dirty hack-jobs hired to finish the memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Although out of office, Lang still faces pressures on both political and personal fronts: the ICC wants to prosecute him for war crimes in Iraq; and his previous covert biographer has just turned up dead along the coast of Martha's Vineyard. "The Ghost" -- as McGregor's character is called in the credits -- has more than a few qualms about his task, especially after getting mugged when leaving his publisher's office. But the money is too good to pass up, as is a subsequent romantic entanglement with Lang's estranged wife (Olivia Williams).
The Ghost Writer comes a few inches shy of ranking with Polanski's greatest films. Truth be told I haven't liked McGregor since Trainspotting, but he's effortlessly charming and focused here as a decent Everyman who stumbles on the truth and struggles to stay alive. As Ruth Lang, the power behind the ex-P.M., Williams has her best role since Rushmore, one that reveals more layers as the narrative goes along. McGregor and Williams are so game that I think the movie could have gone further in making their relationship more dark and twisted than it is. There's a misguided PG-13 restraint to the film that I suspect comes from the studio rather than the director (as evinced by a handful of distractingly dubbed F-bombs). I also could have lived without a phone number beginning with "555." That number is crucial to the plot, and repeated several times, so pay for a real one, for Pete's sake.
At times the classical elements of The Ghost Writer verge on being quaint: "I suggest, dear reader, that you gaze upon it," wrote David Denby, "because it's all but gone in today's moviemaking world." So too are Polanski's filmmaking gifts and perversities of casting, which keep the movie from looking like a relic. Good luck finding a better-looking movie this year -- the cinematography (by Pawell Edelman) is enveloping and richly textured, the production design (particularly of the postmodern beachhouse where the Langs and the Ghost live and work) wittily reveals the protagonist's emotional state. Alexandre Desplat's musical score marvelously entwines playfulness with suspense, as does Brosnan's performance. The man who was Bond may have been a no-brainer as Lang, and he's a strong, elusive presence. But surprise cameos from the likes of 94-year-old Eli Wallach (enjoyably hammy as always) and a bald James Belushi (bearing a bizarre resemblance to Rod Steiger) add some zip to the proceedings.
In many ways The Ghost Writer is haunted by recurring obsessions and tossed-off motifs from Polanski's entire filmography: political pessimism (Chinatown); the essentiality of books and writing (The Ninth Gate); the cultivation of identity through art (The Pianist); the dangers of jet-lag (Frantic); the power and deceit of women (pick 'em). Following the flurry of excitement over the 17th best movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, The Ghost Writer comes as a reminder of how pulp can be given theme and shape in the hands of a great filmmaker. While the movie treats current events seriously (and dares to take sides) Polanski doesn't belabor any points or betray any preachiness. His tone throughout is light and mischievous, with flashes of mordant wit. (One zinger, where one character assures McGregor of his safety, got a huge laugh.) This is the atmosphere in his finest genre pictures, whether horror flick or historical biopic or crime noir. In Shutter Island, Scorsese weighs down schlock with gravitas. In The Ghost Writer, Polanski finds the humor in heavy weather without diluting its power.