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'Ghost Writer': Polanski At The Height Of His Powers

Roman Polanski's new film, the deliciously unsettling The Ghost Writer, is a dark pearl of a movie, made with the flair and precision of a director suddenly restored to the height of his powers.

The film starts quietly, with Ewan McGregor playing an unnamed ghost writer whose agent persuades him to pump up the memoirs of a former British prime minister, a character modeled after Tony Blair.

No director is better than Polanski at creating an across-the-board mood of nagging unease — a sense of nefarious doings just outside our line of sight. No sooner does the ghost writer sign on than the other shoe drops: The prime minister, smoothly played by Pierce Brosnan, is accused of ordering the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA for torture, a charge that could bring prosecution for war crimes. What, the ghost writer wonders, has his agent gotten him into?

As for Polanski, what he's gotten us into is impeccable entertainment. This film is a thriller, wrapped around a roman a clef about contemporary politics, wrapped around Polanski's eternal cynicism about the fate of individuals faced with the entrenched strength of the powerful. The director blends personal preoccupations with audience preferences as effortlessly as Alfred Hitchcock did.

McGregor is excellent as the Ghost With No Name. It's a tricky role, which demands that he hold our interest as a decent and capable everyman while allowing for him to be gullible enough to get caught up in the powerful undertow of forces beyond his control.

It's especially heartening to see 94-year-old Eli Wallach bring the same kind of brio to a small part here as he brought to Mystic River back in 2003. That film helped spark a directing renaissance for Clint Eastwood, and with any kind of luck, The Ghost Writer just might signal a new beginning for Polanski, as well.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.

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