There's a strange elephant-in-the-room dichotomy when it comes to reviewing any Roman Polanski film. On the one hand, this is the sublime craftsman who gave us Rosemary's Baby, The Pianist, and in particular Chinatown, arguably the greatest cinematic mystery in the long annals of the medium. On the other hand, he, you know, rapes children. Well, The Ghost Writer is thankfully free of minors so you don't have to wonder how Roman suppressed his onset boner, but like the man itself there's a strange dichotomy at work; the film can't decide if it wants to be a classy little mystery thriller or heavyhanded political allegory and tries to keep one foot in each pond to mixed results.
Ewan McGregor plays our pointlessly unnamed protagonist, a ghostwriter offered years worth of cash for one month's work to step in and finish the memoirs of disgraced former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan, after the previous ghost washes up drowned on a beach near Lang's home. The movie sort of splits down two parallel paths here, each with Lang at the center but otherwise tenuously connected: in one, Lang is being prosecuted for war crimes for illegal detention, waterboarding, torture, and starting a possibly illegal war during his ministership. Yeah. It's not super-subtle. In the other, the ghostwriter turns up evidence during research for the book that his predecessor's drowning death may have been — insert gasps here — no accident. Perhaps the man... knew too much. Oh shit!
These two narrative threads are so disparate that they call to be reviewed separately. As for the political message, I sort of don't care anymore. I mean, look, the Iraq War was clearly a bullshit and heinous mistake. I thought that was plainly obvious seven years ago, and while it's great that most Americans and probably even more Brits have come to gradually recognize what I easily could as a high school kid, I'm well over applauding works of fiction for pointing it out unless they do so in a particularly interesting or original way, which The Ghost Writer does not.
The thriller story fares considerably better (at least until the very end, which we'll get to momentarily). It's a classy and understated affair, the closest it comes to action at any point being when Ewan McGregor has to use a little deception to give some enforcers following his car the slip, and is skillfully and effortlessly guided along by Polanski who as I stated before knows how to make a goddamn film when he's not busy slipping roofies to preteens. It's got twists, investigation, murder, plenty of wry humor, and even an elegant twist on the femme fatale in the form of Olivia Williams' sexy former British first lady, who gives the best performance in the film by a long shot. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan are passable if a bit nondescript once you can get past the awesomeness of imagining Obi-Wan Kenobi and James Bond teaming up to destroy evil, while Kim Cattrall has one of the worst fake British accents I've heard in years and is terrible as Brosnan's executive secretary.
But it's in the end — as in the very, very end, like the final sixty seconds — when the movie spins off its axis with an ending that seems like it's trying to be profound but is instead random to the point of being almost funny. I won't spoil exactly what happens, but in terms of conclusiveness I was having some serious flashbacks to the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (sans fourth wall breaking). I read a couple reviews calling it brilliantly Polanski-esque and one even favorably comparing it to Chinatown, which is fucking hilarious to me. That's as much a grotesque stretch as saying that Eragon's ending is brilliantly Star Wars-esque because it ends with good defeating evil.
The Ghost Writer is almost certainly going to be Polanski's final film now that he's under house arrest and 76 years old, and as a career-capper I'd give it a wavering thumb sideways. It's watchable enough if you like a sleek murder mystery thriller or Pierce Brosnan playing a Prime Minster or if, god forbid, you still need external validation for your anti-war views, but while Chinatown will live on long after me and the next five generations after me (who Roman Polanski would like to rape), The Ghost Writer will be long forgotten.
2 Stars out of 5