In "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," the documentary about the director and his infamous teen-sex case, Polanski described the treatment at the hands of L.A. County prosecutors as "a cat-and-mouse game" -- with him as the mouse.
So it must be satisfying for Polanski to turn the tables, becoming the cat who toys with his audience in the masterful political thriller "The Ghost Writer" -- which Polanski edited, by proxy, while under arrest in Switzerland and battling efforts to extradite him to the United States for that 1978 crime.
Ewan McGregor stars as a freelance journalist who's hired to ghost-write the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the former British prime minister and a thinly veiled copy of real ex-PM
The new ghost writer (who's never identified by name) is whisked to a island compound in Martha's Vineyard (but actually filmed in Germany) where Lang is ensconced with his angry wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and his staff, including his assistant, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), who may or may not be Lang's mistress. While the writer is trying to get Lang to open up about his life, Lang is dealing with an investigation by the International Criminal Court, in which he is accused of war crimes for helping send British nationals into thenot-so-loving embrace of the American CIA.
The ghost starts to ingratiate himself to Lang, to Ruth and to Amelia -- but he also begins to uncover the same dangerous secrets that his predecessor dug up about Lang's past. The dead writer leaves intriguing clues behind (including the coolest use of a car's turn-by-turn GPS locator in the service of a thriller), and soon the new ghost is looking into a plot involving a shady Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson) and a corporation whose "H" logo (think Halliburton) adorns Lang's private jet.
It's probably impossible to review "The Ghost Writer" without viewing it, at least in part, through the prism of Polanski's personal problems. Lang's self-imposed exile from British politics and a slavering media resembles the exile under which Polanski lived while filming. Certainly Polanski -- who co-wrote the script with Robert Harris, adapting Harris' novel -- captures that isolation, that sense of unease with trusting even those closest to you. And that's well developed in the context of a political potboiler.
The movie is exceptionally well cast, from McGregor and Brosnan down to Williams' steely turn as the scandal-weary wife. The great character actor Eli Wallach, still strong at 94, makes a noteworthy cameo. Even Jim Belushi has a solid moment as the brash boss of the publishing house.
But for all the between-the-lines interpretation possible -- looking for hints of Polanski's psychology or the parallels to real-life politics -- "The Ghost Writer" ultimately works because Polanski is expert at keeping the audience guessing and turning the screws for maximum tension. In this cat-and-mouse game, Polanski's claws are as sharp as ever.