Probably his new film "The Ghost Writer" benefits from that attention. After all, it's the reason that I saw it—and I haven't heard a thing about his previous film, an umpteenth adaptation of "Oliver Twist." His last major work was "The Pianist" in 2002, which has been sitting in a Netflix envelope on my desk for nearly a month (which isn't a jab at the director so much as it is a reflection on my work schedule and my disposition towards period dramas). My conception of Polanski as a filmmaker is therefore based on his seminal work of the sixties and seventies, namely "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown."
Masterworks both that, plainly, "The Ghost Writer" is not. However, for a straightforward thriller, Polanski admirably emphasizes entertainment value over self-seriousness. He shows a lighthearted honesty in his direction of the cast, with a disarming sense of humor. The trailer sort of makes the film out to be a "fate of the free world" spectacle, but the product is interestingly the antithesis. International politics are played between the lines of an intimate character piece, which is infinitely more compelling than trying to give geopolitics direct weight in the context of a two hour story. You can nuke the planet and no one will bat an eye, because it's the characters that make us feel that weight, not the event itself.
Polanski gets that, and "The Ghost Writer" has a (mostly) great cast of characters anchored by unanimously strong performances. Ewan McGregor is great as the lead, though not in the way that one typically defines a performance, "great." For one, it's not a terrific stretch for the actor, and it's neither bombastic nor powerful in its execution, and that's fine—the story doesn't call for it to be. McGregor is subtle, charming, and real as the ghostwriter hired to redraft the memoirs of fictitious former English Prime Minster Adam Lang (Pierce Bronsnan), whose manuscript McGregor describes as the "cure for insomnia."
Maybe it's that playful cynicism or my own writerly ambitions, but McGregor's character is immediately relatable, and because he isn't written as an action hero, he's that much more fun to watch in a dangerous situation. Wry and amusing when not, McGregor is the perfect fish out of water protagonist: he doesn't have a strong political affiliation, and as Lang becomes embroiled in a volatile scandal, he remains to McGregor and the audience a person before an international symbol. Lang is the guy lingering absentmindedly in the hall between sandwiches.
I think in a lesser filmmaker's hands, "The Ghost Writer" would likely have been disposable cinema, especially because the priority for directors now seems to be set pieces and special effects, and by comparison, Polanski's film has few memorable hard action sequences. In that way, its lack of gravitas can be a detriment, underdelivering what some might expect from a suspense/espionage film, but its unconventionality is precisely what I find so endearing about it.
"The Ghost Writer" doesn't have the world's greatest screenplay. It doesn't stand up to a clockwork detective drama like "Chinatown," but so what? How can it, really? It has what counts, which is a great sense of humor and an earnest conviction in itself as halfway intelligent entertainment—And it absolutely succeeds. Roman Polanski is an uncommonly talented storyteller, and his new film, at worst, is a testament to his ability to shape something durable from even second-tier source material. At best, it's timelessly entertaining moviemaking at its finest.
One of these days, I ought to watch "The Pianist."