Yeah, Roman Polanski may be a perv.
He's also a master filmmaker, a fact driven home with just about every minute of "The Ghost Writer."
Smart and atmospheric, with a delicious undercurrent of brutality, this is a political thriller executed with the panache of Hitchcock in his prime. There's no showing off here, just the quiet competence of a man who knows how to be scary, subversive and satiric all at once.
A Brit living in America (Ewan McGregor) stumbles into the gig of a lifetime. He'll be paid a terrific amount to anonymously complete a memoir by a former British prime minister. The book needs a thorough rewrite before going to the publisher.
Just a couple of problems: The job must be completed in a matter of days. And the original ghostwriter has turned up dead on a Martha's Vineyard beach, where the P.M. has been staying.
The writer (his name, according to the credits, is simply "The Ghost") has his work cut out for him. The manuscript is filled with the worst sort of autobiographical banalities. His subject, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), is too obsessed with shoring up his crumbling reputation to actually reveal anything of interest. Our man tries to get Lang to open up, to discover the human being behind the handsome photo op.
Easier said than done. Lang is distracted by news that a European war crimes tribunal is investigating him for allowing British citizens — suspected terrorists — to be turned over to the CIA for torture.
Before the ghostwriter knows what's hit him, he finds himself in executive sessions with Lang, wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and cutthroat chief of staff (and Lang's possible mistress) Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall). Before long, the writer is composing Lang's official statements to the press.
That is nothing compared to the writer's discomfort when he goes through his predecessor's belongings and uncovers clues that Adam Lang may not be at all what he seems. If the first ghostwriter came to an unfortunate end, can the new man expect any better?
Robert Harris' screenplay, based on his own novel, is a model of slowly building tension and incredibly effective dialogue. Indeed, the conversations in "Ghost Writer" are so beautifully structured that only in retrospect do you realize that what appeared to be a discussion of one thing was, in fact, about something entirely different.
This is someone who understands language and its possibilities for revelation — or concealment.
The acting is solid all around — Brosnan excels at presenting a pretty fellow with too much/not enough going on inside — but this is a director's film.
Polanski delivers time after time, showing his mastery of the material. Each scene plays out in seductive rhythm.
And his physical settings are spot on — a summer house on a perpetually gray, windswept shoreline with its poured concrete modernity exudes all the charm of a Nazi bunker overlooking Omaha Beach.
Yet the film was shot entirely in Europe, because Polanski is a wanted man in the States. A few Massachusetts license plates and a couple of American flags, and the illusion is complete.
Right now, we're in the doldrums of the movie calendar. How wonderful, then, to come across a film that will surely go down as one of the year's best.