It is a rather sad commentary that a tightly wound, "adult" thriller such as Ghostwriter comes as such a rarity these days. Indeed, this Roman Polanski directed film harkens back to films of another era, where tension was built block by block and the audience didn't need a car chase every five minutes to whet their ADD addled attention spans.
I say "adult" because this film simply doesn't cater to those base desires to show you all flash and sizzle - preferring to take you on a rather harrowing journey of discovery that, in spite of some nods to filming convention script wise, still manages to build a considerable amount of tension.
Without revealing too much, the story goes something like this: former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (masterfully portrayed by James Bond... I mean Pierce Brosnan) wants to cash in on his celebrity by writing his memoirs. Unfortunately the original ghostwriter (the scribe who takes the musings of the "great man" and turns it into something approaching a readable text) mysteriously winds up lying dead on a beach. Negotiations for a replacement follow and "The Ghost" played ably by Ewan McGregor, enters the picture and is contracted to "clean up and polish" the manuscript of his predecessor. While working on the project McGregor begins to feel that something is not quite right, and here Polanski exhibits his considerable directing skills in setting an ominous tone where just about anything and everyone looks somehow suspicious.
This is a film all about tone, from the gloomy wet landscapes of Martha's Vineyard in winter, to the cold interior of the PM's concrete and steel home. Add in the perfectly British air of cold efficiency provided by the PM's aide (a wonderful role for Kim Cattrall) and the buttoned down manners of the PM's wife Ruth, plus the chilly detachment of the Asian maid/cook who appears to either know something or is going to suddenly go all ninja fu - it all ratchets up the tension and keeps you guessing.
Polanski borrows heavily from past masters like Hitchcock in laying out this story through various conversations and just a hint of plot convenience, yet for all the seemingly innocuous conversations, the tension continues to bubble just beneath the surface, with just enough glances in rearview mirrors at black sedans to make you feel just as McGregor must - that he is a fly caught in a web of something very dark.
As the secret begins to unfold there are some wonderful cameos as McGregor meets up with Eli Wallach, and, in a brief but off the charts bit of acting, Tom Wilkinson whose portrayal of a pompous yet somehow dangerous academian who may be some kind of political power broker, or perhaps something even deeper. Indeed there exists a strong political undertow to the film, as one can easily imagine Andy Lang being Tony Blair, and Wilkinson being perhaps some kind of facilitator for Halliburton. Part and parcel in a film delving into politics, motivations and allegiances are murky at best, which further enhances the feeling of claustrophobia where you can truly trust no one.
The only misstep comes just before the film's conclusion, where a note is passed as if saying, "I know the truth". It is out of character and unnecessary, and yet the filming of the note being passed from hand to hand, never seeing more than the torsos of those doing the passing is so brilliant that you can forgive Polanski (who co-penned the script along with Robert Harris, who wrote the book upon which the film is based) his transgression. What follows, with the action taking place just off screen, with only the aftermath being shown on screen is a bit of cinematic genius and aptly shows a director in complete control of every aspect of his film.