As assignment-driven as Chinatown (1974) and Ninth Gate (1999), Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) is elegant and assured without being slick and cocky. What’s most remarkable about it, though, is that it manages to be profound while not steering one foot away from its much-threaded generic turf. It’s an extract of a movie thriller. In fact, Tom Wilkinson’s line about “bi-polar relations in a multi-polar world” may serve as a definition of what thrillers have always wanted to embody. They try to navigate in a world of multi-layered and contradictory interests in a way that would divide them into neat oppositions (“we” vs. “them”, at the very least).
Expert as ever in using sound and image, Polanski may have produced his subtlest work to date in The Ghost Writer. As Ewan McGregor’s character agrees to the eponymous assignment, a distant bell chimes, as if warning about haste and greed taking over. The film is embroidered with so many masterful directorial touches, it becomes dazzling without ever resigning from its low-key look. The sudden appearance of the TV-chopper behind Lang’s giant plate-glass window; the ever-lurking bodyguard in the first beach scene between McGregor and Olivia Williams; many other subtle tweaks and turns of the mise-en-scene reveal the hand of a true filmmaker working with a tightly written, exciting material. The final ballet of a paper note being passed from hand to hand, as well as the magnificent last shot, radiate the kind of cinematic suaveness that is so rare we’ve all forgotten it’s actually possible.
PS. The only bit that registered as a over-the-top was Brosnan's PM exchanging hearty grins with a Condi Rice-lookalike. That was the movie's sole brush with a political cartoon.