Every so often, Roman Polanski offers a film that's smart enough for serious movie goers but just pulpy and self-aware enough to let the audience have a good time.
His last such effort was The Ninth Gate (1999), a satanic mystery starring Johnny Depp. Since then, he has won an Oscar for the Holocaust film The Pianist and has given us a dark version of Oliver Twist.
His latest, The Ghost Writer, is full of menace and twists and turns.
Ewan McGregor has the title role (he is never given a name). He is brought in to finish for a ghostwriter who has died under mysterious circumstances.
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The project is the memoirs of a former British prime minister, Adam Lang (nicely played by Pierce Brosnan with a perfect combination of sincerity and odiousness). Lang, who is seen as a divisive figure in his country, wants to look good, of course.
The publisher wants a best-seller, and the Ghost — who doesn't appear to have much of a life of his own — is interested in the truth, if only for professional reasons and because he begins to feel jumpy about what happened to his predecessor. His investigation leads in troubling directions, partly involving Lang's wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), a secretive beauty who has an uneasy relationship with her husband.
Viewers will see parallels between Lang and Tony Blair. And it's easy to see Polanski's bemused, detached comment on how his own troubled career is viewed.
The Ghost Writer ($26.99, $40.99 for Blu-ray) was written by Polanski and Robert Harris (based on Harris' novel). Polanski creates a sense of danger from the simplest of objects — a darkened window or door. And there is a precision in his work with the actors — Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach — that colors their performances with subtle touches. Alexandre Desplat's score gives the proceedings an ominous feeling.