There's an odd synchronicity between the two big film releases of this week, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island and Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (Summit Entertainment). Both are directed by men who were titans of the resurgence of American-made film in the early '70s. Both movies are thrillers about young men who become entrapped in webs of paranoia and deceit while stranded on islands off the coast of Massachusetts. And both are films that hark back, in precise and deliberate ways, to earlier chapters of cinematic and political history: the Cold War years in Scorsese's case and the post-Nixon era in Polanski's. I wish I could say that the movie made by the man who didn't allegedly sodomize a minor and then spend 30 years evading sentencing was the better of the two. But the fact is, Shutter Island is a disappointment, incoherent and strained, while The Ghost Writer is a triumph: elegant, accomplished, and (this is the hardest part to admit) occasionally even wise.
With its slow but taut pacing and muted tone, The Ghost Writer evokes the feel of '70s classics like The Conversation or Polanski's own Chinatown.But rather than sampling and remixing these movies in the breathless, avid postmodern style, Polanski remembers them—what they felt like and why they mattered. The principal character, who's never given a name, is played by Ewan McGregor. (A generation ago, Michael Caine would have played the role.) He's a skilled ghostwriter (and, it's implied, a failed novelist) who's brought in to whip into shape the impossibly dull memoir of a former British prime minister in time for publication. The previous ghostwriter died before the manuscript was finished, drowning off the coast of the island where the politician, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), lives with his brilliant, frustrated wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). The Ghost takes the job, unable to resist the $250,000 paycheck. But the check comes with strings attached—so many strings that the Ghost is soon desperately entangled in the Langs' political and marital quagmires.
Holed up at their stark modern beachfront property (whatever house plays the house should win the Academy Award for best house), the embattled Langs watch on cable news as a political enemy implicates Adam in a torture scandal and the International Criminal Court threatens to prosecute. The Ghost, at the Langs' behest, writes a press statement on Adam's behalf—at which point, as he's sweetly informed by Adam's personal assistant and mistress (Kim Cattrall), he becomes "an accomplice." The disgraced PM's resistance to extradition, and his equivocal justification for his past actions, can't help but remind us of Polanski's own legal and moral limbo, but the analogy isn't pushed too far (audiences that want the film to be a mea culpa for the filmmaker will say it isn't pushed far enough).
The intrigues, suspense, and reversals that follow this setup are best left to unfold at their own stately clip. Polanski collaborated on the screenplay with the mystery writer Robert Harris, who wrote the novel the film is based on, and Polanski's signature elements are all here: the plausibly tightening web of coincidence, the sense of constant low-level menace, and the mordant humor. There's a marvelously satisfying sequence that uses a car's GPS device to advance the plot with an economy that would have had Hitchcock clapping his hands in delight.
The casting is note-perfect, with one big, blond exception: Kim Cattrall. If this were a silent movie, Cattrall would be fine—she certainly looks the part of the icy, hyperefficient personal assistant—but her stab at a British accent is 10 degrees short of half-assed, and all you can think of as she purrs her lines is Samantha ordering a second Cosmo. Everyone else in the cast, down to the unknown actors who play the Langs' domestic staff, seems born to play just the role they have. Pierce Brosnan, in particular, is an inspired choice to play a slick, shallow actor-turned-politician who's half Reagan, half Tony Blair. When Eli Wallach, now 93, shows up in a tiny part as the local who warns the Ghost about the sketchy circumstances of his predecessor's death, you don't think, "Cool, a cameo by Eli Wallach!" You think, what an eerily fascinating old man that is.
The composer Alexandre Desplat is on a tear. In the past year, he has scored three terrific movies ( Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Prophet,and this one), and two more that, whatever you think of them, were musically memorable ( Julie & Julia and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.) His music for The Ghost Writer, full of Bernard Herrmann-esque arpeggios and tinkling bells, is at once witty and genuinely suspenseful. It's one of the best things about the movie.
I'm getting tired of saying nice things about The Ghost Writer, so I'll throw in a quibble: The denouement, in which the Ghost learns just how high the conspiracy goes, pivots on a plot point that feels over-elaborate and contrived. But the very last shot—perhaps the best last shot of a movie since Before Sunset—redeems everything. Except, of course, for Roman Polanski himself.
Slate V: The critics on The Ghost Writer and other new releases