Roman Polanski’s newest (and rumored to be final) film, “The Ghost Writer,” has the feel of a classic suspense thriller from the Hitchcock era. It is brisk and clean, while also ominous and atmospheric. It doesn’t waste time with character development, but instead introduces characters fully formed, and expects the audience to be able to keep up.
Observe the opening sequence. We see a ferry, and then a ferry unloading, until we notice one car that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The ferry workers tow the car off the ferry. Cut to a quick scene of a body washing up onshore. You connect the dots. It’s not difficult, but it’s not spoon-fed, either. In some ways, it makes modern suspense thrillers feel very lazy and bloated.
Ewan McGregor is a two-bit writer who specialized in quick and dirty celebrity biographies; the kind of work editors turn their noses up at but publishers can’t get enough of. He is suddenly, surprisingly put in charge of ghost writing the memoirsof the former British Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan; he’s got 30 days to turn his burgeoning, boring manuscript into something that will sell. Brosnan is holed up with his wife and staff in a fortress-like mansion on an island somewhere between New York and Washington; the place has a definite Hotel California feel about it. Polanski does a lot with atmospherics in “The Ghost Writer;” everything is shrouded in fog that occasionally breaks into furious rainstorms; there’s never a sunny moment to be found. Brosnan’s staff, led by his wife (played with great relish by Olivia Williams) all seem to be under a spell; it’s like they know a secret, are dying to tell, but telling would mean dying. Of course, this is the exact truth.
Just as McGregor begins work on the memoir, political disaster strikes for Brosnan, and McGregor finds himself possibly complicit in the dealings of a man he hardly knows. On top of that, some things just don’t add up, and it starts to look like the writer McGregor replaced – the one on the ferry a the beginning—didn’t exactly jump. As he follows the clues—which include ingenious use of an in-vehicle GPS system—he uncovers a political conspiracy big enough to rock the foundations of the British government.
I didn’t like the ending of “The Ghost Writer” – the final twist feels obvious, amateur and sloppy after the cleverness and subtlety of all that’s gone before. But overall, Polanski’s latest is smart, spooky, and entertaining; definitely worth seeing.