Roman Polanski's highly publicized latest film (as a result of his arrest last September) is a smart, no frills political thriller steeped in government conspiracy and wet with the director's unmistakable identity. Based on the Robert Harris novel, The Ghost, the film adaptation plays out predictably like a one-night page-turner, yet demonstrates enough moments of style, wit and sheer control over its material to come out roses in the end.
Essentially a one-man investigative conspiracy potboiler, the lead dog (a hack ghost-writer without a name played by Ewan McGregor) is appointed by a squeaky publishing house (given a face by Timothy Hutton) to continue working on the unfinished memoir of ex-UN Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). The first ghost-writer tragically died, although the events surrounding his death seem awfully suspicious. Who's up for a mystery, huh?
Taking place almost entirely on a sea-side castle of modernity (the Prime Minister's lovely escape palace on a nameless island off the East Coast), the film shares more than one common link between itself and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both films are late-career works by legendary filmmakers, they both take place on an island, and they both contain final-act twists which render everything that took place before altered and warped in retrospect.
This kind of rat-in-a-maze thriller (to steal a line from Jackie Earle Haley) definitely shares its foundation with Polanski's own Chinatown, especially in its final moments, although it only seems capable of sufficient imitation opposed to duplication.
It certainly feels wholly competent and perfectly calculated, yet there is an air of falsity and comatose that bubbles to the surface occasionally, resembling the same fallacy as the condemning photographs that our nameless ghost-writer uncovers.
Contrary to Scorsese's film, The Ghost Writer operates on a different level of big-picture politics and global conspiracy, avoiding genre calls and bombastic amplification. It also doesn't really foment the way Shutter Island does, lingering and cultivating in the mind long afterward as something grand and tragic. The Ghost Writer works and it thrills, it just doesn't stimulate.