Lou Reed once said his shit was better than other people's diamonds. So it is with filmmaker Roman Polanski, who brings such a masterly touch to whatever he does that even a low-key thriller like The Ghost Writer shines more brightly than it should. If only the predictable story and timid cast lived up to the director's sophisticated panache.
Hired to ghost-write the memoir of a Tony Blair-like British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), a nameless writer (get it?) played by Ewan McGregor is sucked into political and domestic intrigue. The PM is accused by the Hague of human rights violations with his war-on-terror tactics, his frosty wife starts to thaw around McGregor, and suspicious details emerge about the supposed suicide of the previous ghost writer.
Sleek and stately, Polanski slowly builds tension with innuendo and half-revealed clues. The film's pace and rhythm are clearly of another era, with an elegant retro touch and devilish wit that recalls Hitchcock at his creepiest. Using deep focus cinematography and noir compositions, The Ghost Writer grows more and more sinister in tone and texture, getting under your skin and rattling your nerves. In particular, a low-stakes exchange between McGregor and Tom Wilkinson's mysterious professor is fraught with menace.
Unfortunately, Polanski's cast mostly disappears into the scenery, never earning our sympathy, trust or scorn. They do their best with sketched-in characters, as if nobody knows what kind of film they're in.
The timely plot feels serious-minded, but Polanski could care less about the particulars of war-on-terror politics. Sure, a lot is said, and said well, but none of it actually means anything. The shady bodyguards, hidden secrets, complex histories, car chases, and political corruption are just an excuse for Polanski to masterfully build creeping paranoia and anxiety ... and perhaps allude to his own house-arrest and unwanted celebrity woes.
And that's the shame of it all. What might have been a post-9/11 take on the Manchurian Candidate mostly ends up a missed opportunity. Unlike Polanski's troubling, sordid and passionate Chinatown, The Ghost Writer is more elegant exercise than inspiration.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.