Martin Scorsese’s and Roman Polanski’s new movies make for a depressing study in contrasts. Scorsese’s Shutter Island, with its hammy quotations from the history of Expressionist noir, is like something on a slab in a movie morgue. On the other hand, Polanski’s The Ghost Writer — likely his last film if he ends up, in his late 70s, in the slammer — is a trim, fluid, perfectly sustained work. Whatever its narrative lapses, it conjures from first frame to last his malignant inner world.
The film is an audacious, paranoid conspiracy drama, a thriller in which the violence is all off-screen or implied. Ewan McGregor is the writer-for-hire who’s drafted at the last minute — his predecessor has mysteriously drowned — to rework the much-anticipated memoirs of an ex–prime minister called Lang (Pierce Brosnan). No point in beating around the bush (or Bush): He’s Tony Blair to the last molecule, reviled by his countrymen for hitching his country to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now under investigation by an international human rights tribunal for turning over suspects to the C.I.A. for torture. As the media descends on his U.S. refuge (an ugly modernist concrete fortress on a wintry Martha’s Vineyard beach), the ghost writer finds himself marooned with the P.M.’s clipped, angry wife (Olivia Williams) and perky but cryptic aide (Kim Cattrall).
McGregor has never been better. His cheekiness becomes increasingly intense, a vain defense against his growing awareness of hidden wheels and pulleys, and his eyes are as alive as Polanski’s camera. We see everything through those eyes. Based on a novel by Robert Harris (who co-wrote the screenplay with the director), The Ghost Writer fits Polanski like a straitjacket. His loner hero is spiritually isolated, trapped in small and vast spaces — on dunes and rain-swept beaches under low, threatening skies — and unable to move without being monitored. Yet in spite of all the creepy-crawlies, there’s also an erotic undercurrent. In Polanski’s world, morbidity and libido are sibling-close.
The Ghost Writer is not especially realistic in its depiction of anti-war protesters who descend on the British P.M. everywhere he goes in the U.S.: Said protesters never came within shouting distance of big-wheel government officials even in the war’s heyday (alas). But Polanski’s touch is so sure (low-key with a sting) that the film is entrancing to its last sardonic frame. Although there’s more than a touch of Hitchcock (lots of gliding P.O.V. shots, Alexandre Desplat’s puckishly Hermann-esque score), Polanski makes every frame organic. Now as always, nothing is jake, Jake. It’s all Chinatown.
Related: Edelstein’s Shutter Island Review