The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s first feature in four years, has its own spectre to contend with. What the world knows about the 76-year-old filmmaker — that he’s currently under house arrest in Switzerland, still embroiled in his ugly 1977 U.S. case involving sex with a then-13-year-old girl — hovers like a phantom over every frame of this satisfying, melancholy political suspense story. The disturbing information can’t be ignored. But neither ought it distract viewers from a well-made, sleekly retaliatory, pleasurably paranoid tale in praise of enterprising (and also brave) investigative journalists and in condemnation of political skulduggery in general and right-wing Anglo-American collusion in particular. British best-selling author Robert Harris wrote the novel; Harris and Polanski penned the adapted screenplay with a feel for a contemporary movie audience sick to death of headlines about U.S. involvement in covert torture operations.
The ”ghost” of the title — who’s never actually given a name — is a reputable author (thoughtfully played by Ewan McGregor) hired to write the memoirs of controversial former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, cast to a T). Feel free to read allusions to Tony Blair in Lang’s situation, since as a journalist, Harris was once close to the ex-PM. Certainly Olivia Williams (An Education), as Lang’s powerful wife, has more than a touch of Cherie Blair’s forthrightness in her. McGregor actually plays a replacement ghost, since a previously hired scribe has died, found drowned in a suspicious accident in the waters between Lang’s secluded beach home on Martha’s Vineyard and the Massachusetts mainland as the story opens.
Polanski and Harris do a jolly good job of letting the circles of untrustworthy characters (including Kim Cattrall, blouse tucked in as Lang’s protective assistant, and Tom ? Wilkinson as a secretive Harvard prof) ripple outward, like rings from a stone thrown into water. Indeed, water figures everywhere — it’s forever raining, and the Ghost rides a bike through sad puddles. Meanwhile, at the shoreline, a severely modern, concrete bunker of a beach house filmed on German location tries to distract us from the evident fact that we’re really not on Martha’s Vineyard. After all, the director, a wanted man in the U.S., can’t set foot there. B+