Ewan McGregor stumbles onto a former prime minister's shady past in "The Ghost Writer." (Summit Entertainment)
The Ghost tries to get at the truth of things.
It's his job, even if the truth he's trying to get at -- a personality quirk, a distant memory -- seems insignificant, which is why he can't let go when it seems he might be on the verge of discovering something very significant. If he can uncover something important, it will validate his very existence, an existence that, on the scant evidence provided in Roman Polanski's rich new film, "The Ghost Writer," is otherwise fairly hollow.
The Ghost -- the character has no other name -- is played by Ewan McGregor; and he's a professional ghost writer, a man who comes in and for little to no credit but often good money, polishes autobiographies. As the film begins, he's being hired for a large sum to quickly clean up the memoirs of controversial ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan).
The previous ghost writer, you see, turned up mysteriously dead one day. Drowned and washed up on a beach near Lang's home.
Based on a novel by Robert Harris and written by Polanski for the screen, "The Ghost Writer" is a fascinating blend of Polanski's classic sensibility, new-world paranoia and political intrigue that just happens to be hitting theaters as ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair is under fire for many of the same Iraq War irregularities of which the fictional Lang is accused.
Such timeliness stands in stark contrast to Polanski's timeless approach to the film, which has the feel of another decade, although it's hard to pinpoint which decade that might be.
But just because the film has a classic tone doesn't mean Polanski is playing it conservative; he switches the film's lighting and cinematography halfway through in a manner that's both mysterious and jolting, and then keeps playing with things. The director here is definitely directing, and taking risks that lesser talents wouldn't dare.
To accomplish his rewrite, the Ghost travels to an island where Lang, his staff and wife Ruth (the suddenly and rightly in-demand Olivia Williams) are staying.
The house itself is an eerie character in the film, a rectangular thing featuring an ornate staircase without a bannister that seems as if it must cause multiple deaths annually. Look out to the patio through the plate glass window and you'll see a groundskeeper perpetually trying to capture leaves that blow in the wind. He never does catch them all.
It's to Polanski's credit that he neither hides such symbolism nor pummels you with it. It's just there.
Once the Ghost becomes a part of the household, he tumbles onto a secret stash of information about Lang's past that leads him to suspect his predecessor was murdered. He also realizes that Lang is having an affair with his aide (Kim Cattrall), while Ruth bitterly resents the turns her life has taken.
When protests eventually drive Lang and company to Washington, D.C., for some media spinning, the Ghost decides to investigate both the murder and Lang's somewhat murky schooldays. It's about this time that Polanski's camera gets dark and fuzzy, reflecting the world our Ghost has plunged into.
Suddenly the Ghost's head is filled with conspiracies and government betrayals, and he feels he's on the trail of ... something.
When it comes to paranoia and puzzles, Polanski is a master, and there are moments here that recall the sublime confusion of "Chinatown," where it's apparent things are terribly wrong but not so apparent just what those things might be.
McGregor has an air of frantic naivete about him that serves the film well, and Brosnan exudes both the confidence and well-hidden, limited intelligence of the powerful. Williams, meanwhile, travels from mean to conniving to vengeful and vulnerable with alarming ease. Only Cattrall fails to connect, a minor casting glitch.
"The Ghost Writer" is one of those films that feels simultaneously smooth and unsettling. The swirl of visual poetry, political intrigue and personal zeal that Polanski creates gets under your skin and brings an icy hand up your back. This is moviemaking.