There’s a scene in The Ghost Writer where Pierce Brosnan’s Tony-Blair-In-All-But-Name ex-Prime Minister is looking at charges of war crimes and wondering where he can live without being extradited to the World Court that suddenly pulls you out of the story and reminds you that the director of the film himself recently learned a valuable lesson about nations with extradition treaties. Thankfully that’s the only moment in The Ghost Writer that really draws attention to the weird conditions of the film’s final post-production process, although many will insist on watching the film (if they can bring themselves to watch a movie from someone like Polanski at all, what with them being such arbiters of morals and justice, and what with them demanding only the most pure behavior from all artists) through that prism. But when watched as a film – just as a film - The Ghost Writer is smart and thrilling and funny and wonderfully told.

Ewan MacGregor is a delightful everyman in the Hitchcock mold; a ghost writer of memoirs, he stumbles into an assignment that’s way out of his league. The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who has retired to an island off the New England coastline, is writing his autobiography. The original ghost on the project -and the PM’s trusted friend – has turned up dead, and the book needs to be finished immediately. As soon as MacGregor starts working with the reluctant Adam Lang, a controversy springs up – did Lang break international law and send terrorism suspects to be tortured? While this makes the value of the memoir soar, it also begins to make Lang question the fate of the previous ghost… and his own safety.

Robert Harris adapted his own novel, and he has given Polanski a script that often has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Not an outright satire of the thriller, The Ghost Writer is aware of, and winks at, the conventions of the genre. The necessary seduction scene – Lang’s wife, played by the feline Olivia Williams ends up in McGregor’s bed – is almost perfunctory, and a scene of McGregor (whose character has no name, reflecting his place in the writing process) tries to evade bad guys is realistically clumsy and awkward. But even with the nods, Polanski creates an air of inescapable tension; as the film’s final scenes play out and secrets are revealed you’ll be on the edge of your seat even though nary a bomb is in sight or a gunfight is pending. 

Most of the film is carried on the shoulders of McGregor, proving that when given a good script and a masterful director he can still do terrific work. Opposite him is Pierce Brosnan, playing a character that Harris allows to become more than just a stand-in punching bag for Tony Blair, the great disappointment for the British. Brosnan’s perfectly suited for the role of a politician who is more actor than statesman, and he’s got just the right weariness – surely earned at the hands of the folks behind the Bond films – to get across Lang’s ultimate frustration. Williams gives a sneaky performance, one that keeps you guessing throughout the film; as such it’s tough to praise her adequately without giving away her part in the story. The only really weak link in the main cast (even Jim Belushi’s really good!) is Kim Cattrall, tasked with delivered an awful fake British accent. Had she been allowed to talk naturally I think she could have worked better, but her this-side-of-Dick Van Dyke accent, she’s a sore thumb.

It’s fitting that there’s also a Scorsese movie opening this weekend, and that it’s a strong genre exercise, just like The Ghost Writer. As I said in my review of Shutter Island we all too often have to make apologies for our aging filmmakers, accepting weirdly stunted pacing or stylistic tics that just don’t work anymore. Woody Allen, also a member of Scorsese and Polanski’s 70s class of geniuses, is a good example of this – you have to make a lot of excuses for later Woody movies. But you don’t have to make excuses for Shutter Island or The Ghost Writer; both crackle with energy and verve and feel like the works of men in their prime. Polanski has obviously been better – and while the movie tackles some political themes, he’s been weightier – but he’s rarely been as much fun. The film is a blast, an incredibly well made good time at the movies.

One special note must be made of Alexandre Desplat’s score, which is simply amazing. When I saw the film I thought it was scored with a temp track made up of masterpieces that I somehow failed to recognize. It’s not – Desplat is just that fucking good. If this isn’t a front runner for Best Score in next year’s Oscars, somebody needs to shake some sense into the Academy. 

The cliche is that to say that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and the truth is that they don’t. For fans of expertly constructed genre films this is a great weekend, as two true masters of the form are in theaters, showing the young kids how to make movies that engage, entertain and don’t condescend to the audience. It’s weird thinking that this could very likely be the last film that Roman Polanski makes, but if that’s the case he’s going out on a note that, while not a classic, is very strong.

8.5 out of 10