Roman Polanski appears to be back in the saddle with his new political mystery thriller, which includes elements of what we like best in his work yet doesn't surpass the excitement of his greatest achievements. The Ghost Writer hasn't the complexity or breadth of such stunners as Chinatown or The Pianist, but it is nevertheless a solidly crafted little roundelay of intrigue with a veracity that seems torn from newspaper headlines. (The headlines regarding Polanski's personal legal woes are not part of this analysis.)
The Ghost Writer begins in classic mystery form with a corpse washing up on the beach. The dead man turns out to have been the ghostwriter for the unwieldy memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). A replacement (Ewan McGregor) is hastily hired, and the film's only name for him is the Ghost. Seemingly devoid of any political bent or artistic vanity (his last ghosting job was a magician's bio titled I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered), the Ghost is hurried off on an evening flight to Lang's island hideaway somewhere off the eastern coast of the U.S.
Here the intrigue steadily mounts while the Ghost is drawn into its all-consuming vortex. The film's production design plays a major role in creating the story's overall sense of inhospitable tensions. The cold, windy and largely barren landscape is unwelcoming, and the Langs' angular modern house stands in sharp contrast to the wild, rocky environs that surround it. The home's security features are state-of-the-art, its wall-length picture windows create terrifically unsteadying trompe l'oeils, and the daily crowd of protesters at its gates form a flogging gauntlet through which all comers to the estate must pass.
Lang's assistant (Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall, showing her dramatic chops and sporting a decent British accent) seems suspicious; Lang's wife (Olivia Williams) appears welcoming yet controlling. And delight of all delights, movie veteran Eli Wallach shows up for a scene as one of the island's weather-beaten old-timers.
The Ghost Writer's mystery is a little too easy to disentangle (the screenplay was written by Robert Harris and Polanski, and adapted from Harris' novel), although that's from the perspective of an outsider and not the Ghost in the midst of the whirlwind. You're likely to be drawn in by the film's sleek elegance alone and forget about its mysterious underpinnings.