Few filmmakers make a better case that the story is in the telling than Roman Polanski. The director's 18th feature, the conspiracy yarn "The Ghost Writer," exudes excellence in its confident rhythm and incisive attention to intellect and emotion. Above all, there's an ineffable je ne sais quoi to Polanski's style, an audio-visual elan.
Like other cinematic old masters, Polanski has his pick of top-tier talent. Ewan McGregor plays this mystery's dogged flatfoot, a professional (unnamed) ghost writer hired to rewrite the autobiography of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Disconcertingly, the ghost's predecessor lately washed up on the shores of Cape Cod, not far from Lang's seaside property.
Though the circumstances are suspicious, the death is deemed an accident; still, no sooner does the new ghost arrive than a scandal involving Lang blows up in the press. Suddenly facing war-crime charges, Lang appears to have authorized the illegal use of British Special Forces for a secret kidnap culminating in CIA torture. And with that, the book becomes a hot commodity, with editors demanding that the ghost cut his one-month work time in half.
Paring down Lang's windy tome will be no easy task. "All the words are there," the ghost deadpans. "They're just in the wrong order." Adding to the pressure: the louche Lang's hair-trigger temper; his wife (Olivia Williams), also emotionally unstable; and protestors swarming the property line. But all else pales next to a growing suspicion that Lang and his friends in high places have conspired to cover up yet more damaging secrets, secrets that just may have gotten one ghost killed and his replacement in mortal danger.
The plot of "The Ghost Writer" is serviceable, but it's basically an "airplane read" elevated by dialogue (Polanski shares screenplay credit with the source novel's author, Robert Harris). Unlike many of Polanski's earlier exercises in the mystery, thriller and horror genres, from "Chinatown" to "The Ninth Gate," this film isn't much interested in well-placed shock tactics. The most delicious scene here is a long, squirmy dialogue between the ghost and Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, superb): a high-powered old friend of Lang who would rather not be known for it.
The director's shrewd and witty approach to the material demonstrates his finely tuned sense of the absurd. Partly, he takes a personal interest in boundaries and the escaping of them. The story's many gated communities seem to hold people in as much as they hold people out (and, ironically, Polanski had to finish cutting the film from jail).
Polanski also tells several sharp visual jokes, at least one of which doubles as a metaphor: a servant sweeping up brush on the deck of the windy beachfront home. It's as comically futile a task as anything any character attempts in the film.