An impresario of widescreen framing, Roman Polanski has been obsessively filtering his personal traumas through his camera eye since his feature-length debut, Knife in the Water, announced him as a major film artist. His unique visual imprint is felt immediately in the opening shot of The Ghost Writer, which begins with a barge pulling up to a dock, appearing almost anxious to spit out its cargo of commuter cars onto a mysterious island retreat but also seeming as if it were going to penetrate the surface of the screen. Even before a body washes ashore and a group of men gather in an office to give Ewan McGregor’s nameless lead character the job of finishing a disgraced ex-Prime Minister’s memoirs, this taut little thriller already has you by the neck.
Ghost Writer is a film with shades of political intrigue. It links a British politico’s handling of terror suspects with America’s rejection of ICC jurisdiction, but unlike Tony Gilroy’s fashionably self-serious Michael Clayton, in which George Clooney saves his soul by exposing a corporation’s malfeasance, it isn’t enthralled by the complicated villainy that ties many powers that be. After Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang is called out for his alleged wrongdoing, McGregor’s “ghost” sets out on his own to unravel a seemingly tangled web that links his boss to a Cambridge scholar and reveals cracks in Adam’s story about his political origins, but he doesn’t do so out of any sort of self-righteous moral duty. What compels the character is sheer curiosity, then his fiercely primal desire for survival.
Ghost Writer suggests a game of chess played delicately and with great precision. The score, by the great Alexandre Desplat, is racked with as much tension as Polanski’s prismatically askew images, notable for their remarkably absorbing depth of field: However McGregor is framed, whether it is before a vast, toiling ocean or against a huge wall-sized window, there’s always a sense that he’s unsafe, that someone, something, could sneak up behind him at any moment, from around some corner or sand dune, even from out of the sea, and take him way. The machinations of plot are realistic in their humdrumness, but they obviously matter less to Polanski than mood—creating a suffocating aura of eerie tranquility that’s bound for inevitable collapse.
Ninth Gate sans the goofy giallo flourishes, Ghost Writer is in many ways a cynical vision, assuming as it does political, even human, corruptibility as a given, but the struggle of McGregor’s character is hauntingly reflective of Polanski’s lifelong traumas, from his surviving the Holocaust to, well, his surviving the murder of Sharon Tate and their unborn child. Holed up inside Adam’s island manse, subjected to all sorts of security checks, his every behavior scrutinized, McGregor’s ghost writer becomes not unlike, yes, a ghost. His is a particularly nerve-jangling existential crisis, and it’s one that you feel in one’s bones—and could not have been conceived by anyone other than a man that has moved throughout life from one prison to next, many of his own construction.