The first question that comes to mind watching Roman Polanski’s latest thriller — set mainly in a dreary, off-season Cape Cod — is where did they film the damn thing? (Germany, it turns out, was suitably downcast for the role). Polanski, a convicted sex offender, fled the country more than 30 years ago and hasn’t stepped foot on American soil since. The context is significant, and not just because the film is about a disgraced former British Prime Minister about to be tried for war crimes, holing up abroad.
As the film opens, the former PM in question, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), has been hard at work defending his name and trying to write his memoirs, only his original ghost writer has turned up drowned in the Atlantic. Thus, a newly dispatched writer (Ewan McGregor, referred to as The Ghost), is paid very handsomely to take over the project. The Ghost isn’t on the job long before Lang gets indicted for having extradited suspected terrorists from Britain to foreign soil for torture purposes. This puts even more strain on his relationship with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and adds pressure to the Ghost’s situation, as he tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his predecessor’s death.
For all his acknowledged issues, Polanski, who during postproduction on the film was himself finally placed under house arrest in Switzerland before extradition hearings to finally come back to the States, remains an accomplished and vital filmmaker. The weight of the political thriller genre rests largely in the tone and pace of its convolutions, and Polanski has made a daring throw-back here. Details, from the Ghost’s confusion at a car’s keyless entry system, to the manner in which pebbles scatter loosely from under a bike tire, are duly noted, creating an atmosphere of naturalism even as the situations of the film become more and more unreal. But where Polanski’s hand is most assured is in the film’s pace, never hurried or anxious, nor languid and ponderous, instead it becomes the driving force of a thriller so confident in its execution, it doesn’t have to rely on the obsequious slight of hand of Hollywood’s more garish and cynical versions. It is also the keen touch of a masterful filmmaker. He might soon be returning to the U.S. as a convicted criminal, but we can’t take away the fact that this 77-year-old can still cook.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.