Roman Polanski has lived one of the most fascinating lives of the last century, though it would be hard to call it “good.” Such a title ought to be reserved for more pleasant, straightforward existences that perhaps begin modestly and end with a substantial list of quality works and a likable persona maintained till death. Paul Newman comes to mind, him of the dazzling blue eyes, remarkable performances and charitable donations, born in a suburb in Ohio to a Jew who ran a sporting goods store. Polanski, perhaps due to his European roots, is much harder for us Americans to relate to, even in his early years. He lived in Krakow, and man- aged to escape the Ghetto there, while his mother died at Auschwitz, a story similar to that of the musician Władysław Szpilman, whose autobiography Polanski adapted for his Academy Award-winning _The Pianist_. His life continued its rather tumultuous arc with his marriage to Sharon Tate, who was the victim of one of the most infamous of all crimes, the Manson Family murders in 1969. She was stabbed to death when pregnant with Polanski’s child, while the director was abroad making a film.
Of course, these episodes of immense personal struggle have nearly vanished from the public conscience due to Polanski’s sexual assault conviction in 1977 of a thirteen-year-old girl. He fled the United States to avoid prison after that, and has never returned.
It is hard to believe that he has not set foot on the shores of this nation in over thirty years when watching his most recent film, the sharp, clever, mostly satisfying _The Ghost Writer_, adapted from the British novelist Robert Harris’ _The Ghost_. (Harris also worked on the adaptation.) The film is set almost exclusively on Martha’s Vineyard in wintertime—which of course (unless one believes in the sort of vast conspiracies Polanski’s film finds itself dealing with) is not at all where the film was actually shot. Instead, he used the German North Sea, creating one of the more remarkable settings for a film I have seen in some time. (Amongst those that are real, so Pandora doesn’t count.) The cinematography is credited to Pawel Edelman, who creates lushness and a physically and emotionally dense setting out of drab gray skies, churning slate-colored water and seemingly endless rain. For whatever reason, I found myself reminded of David Carradine’s speech about the mythology of Superman from Quentin Tarantino’s _Kill Bill_. “Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman,” he tells us, as the titular Bill. Where Peter Parker must put on a costume to become Spider-man and Bruce Wayne must do the same to become Batman, Superman instead must put on a costume to blend in with the rest of humanity. He chooses to be a docile, largely pathetic man with conservative fashion sense and wire frame glasses, who is meek at work and generally a “coward,” according to Bill. “Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race,” he says. Likewise _The Ghost Writer_ is Polanski’s America, seen through the lens of a banished outsider. It is domineering and bleak, but with a sort of romance to it, as though somewhere in the seams of this great, gray-blue cloak spread over the screen there is the possibility of the sun returning. Perhaps this is what Polanski believes about his own relationship with America. But I’m getting sidetracked by conspiracies. Which means I’m not really, because The Ghost Writer is about just those things.
Even more specifically than the faked locality of Martha’s Vineyard, the film takes place in a massive modernist palace on the dunes and overlooking the sea. The thing itself is colored the same as its surroundings, and is a rather handsome and compelling character on its own. I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that the cinematography, the lighting and the set design are reasons enough to see the film. The house was concocted by production designer Albrecht Konrad, and is a set somewhere in a very large studio. The massive floor-to-ceiling windows and blemish-free concrete walls are housed somewhere far away from any actual beach. Thus, the scenes inside the house feel insular, as though the howling rains outside are a world apart from the one experienced by the characters nestled uneasily within.
But enough of this delay; Polanski’s film is about Tony Blair, it seems, and his strange relationship with the United States. Of course, the film does not acknowledge this so blatantly. The Prime Minister in the film, now out of office and attempting to write his memoirs, is called Adam Lang and played quite compellingly by Pierce Brosnan. Ewan McGregor plays the Ghost, the unnamed writer who is charged with the task of taking the rather daunting manuscript Lang composed with his previous ghost to turn it into something that will sell. (There are several amusing scenes that go over life in the modern publishing world. In fact the film is riddled with humorous sight gags and clever jokes that move it forward without diminishing the tension. One word I would use to describe the thing would be “tight.” It feels finished and complete, which is much more than I can say about many movies today.) Of course there is a bit of menace to the whole escapade, as the writer McGregor is to follow was discovered washed up on the shore a couple of weeks earlier—under, we come to discover, rather mysterious circumstances. One of the subtle (or not-so-subtle, depending on how you see it) gems of the film is a cameo by Eli Wallach of _The Good, The Bad and the Ugly_ fame (he played the Ugly) as a Vineyard lifer who helps McGregor on his quest to uncover some information regarding the death of his predecessor.
All in all, the film moves swiftly, with clean editing, crisp dialogue and beautiful, spiteful scenery. The film is not a thriller in the modern sense. It does not aim to shock with sudden directorial flourishes or special effects outbursts. It is grounded very much in reality, and it is within this realness that we find ourselves quite comfortable, making the twists Polanski offers us both satisfying and believable. There are a couple of moments I hesitated to believe were possible, regarding a bent- on-vengeance military father, and I feel the film could have been much longer, actually, and offered a bit more. But as it stands, the film is highly enjoyable. It shows that for however long Polanski manages to remain free, or even alive as he advances in age, he will continue to make films that showcase his deft touch, and one can at least call that part of his life a success.