Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is one of his masterpieces — relentless in its suspense; funny when you least expect it; above all, deeply conscious of political power and its corruptions. In this latter quality it forms a third panel in an unofficial trilogy whose first two parts were Chinatown and Death and the Maiden. But — in an irony characteristic of his wildly eventful, weirdly punishing life — Polanski has attained this creative summit while lodging under house arrest in Switzerland.

The title character (Ewan McGregor), hired to “ghost” the memoirs of a disgraced British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan), finds himself occupying not only the job but the guest room of his dead predecessor. Suicide, or murder? That word ghost becomes ever more loaded as the cadaverish data pile higher. The dead man's clothes still hang in the closet (shades of The Tenant); a sheaf of hidden documents (shades of Rosemary's Baby) serves as a cry for help, a warning and a tempting key to still-deeper secrets hoarded by a gallery of unreliable allies: the PM's wife (Olivia Williams), his mistress (Kim Cattrall), and Tom Wilkinson, who embodies the question mark at the center of this maze, much as John Huston's Noah Cross did in Chinatown.

There is, however, a significant difference: Whereas in Chinatown the corruptions of 1930s Los Angeles were movingly personified in the love triangle that arose between the mystery woman, her monstrous father and the detective attempting to save her, The Ghost Writer has no such love story. Sexual alliances are so fraught with menace and appeal that neither the hero nor we can have any trust in them. “Bad idea,” the PM tells his reflection in the bathroom mirror, before going to bed with one such partner — but, true to human nature and ruthless Polanski logic, he jumps in with her anyway. Similarly, any villain we meet is less an individual monster than she or he is a cat's-paw serving a larger, unseen interest. Noah Cross (owing to Robert Towne's superb screenplay) could proclaim a demonic philosophy when cornered, saying: “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they're capable of anything.” Wilkinson's smooth operator conceals what he's thinking at all times, usually behind an inscrutable grin and lighthearted (if poison-tipped) reproaches: “A less equable man might find your questions impertinent.”

The Ghost Writer is thus less heartrending than Chinatown but intellectually more ambitious. Behind its most dominant figures there operates a globally vast, falsely benevolent corporate entity called “Hatherton” — Halliburton, anyone? — whose philanthropies mask weapons sales, proclaiming: “We Keep You Safe From Harm!” In such a world, no head of state is ever truly in charge — nor is any organized populace. That is the real terror at work here, and for this lucidity Polanski is in debt to co-screenwriter Robert Harris, author of the novel on which the film is based. The news media are mindless pawns of these powers-that-be, inciting swarms of crazies to camp at the former prime minister's gate and cry “Murderer!!!” as he enters his retreat on Martha's Vineyard. (The whole British government appears to be camped in exile on this American isle of wealth, which gives the proceedings a certain Shakespearean, fairyland quality.) One can only wish we lived in an America where “war crimes” alleged against recent heads of state are so vehemently protested. Polanski's absurd bad luck is that his own wrongdoing of three decades ago is still causing such commotion, when more recent and more historically consequential crimes go unexplored.

And here our discussion gets tricky.

Given the outcries that have accompanied Polanski's every mention in the press since his arrest last September, is it even possible for The Ghost Writer to be judged impartially? As it is neither an apologia for unlawful sex nor a justification for jumping bail — the twin crimes of 1977-78 for which he has been brought to heel — its maker's personal status at present seems rightly irrelevant. Yet there is no denying that the cries of “child rapist” have hampered the picture's release. (Under normal circumstances, given its thriller's pulse, it might've had a much higher profile.)

I'm one of Polanski's defenders — not because I condone what he did but because I'm persuaded he has already been punished, and that the constant flood of vitriol being heaped upon him is no longer just. Let me be clear: Nobody but nobody has ever condoned Polanski's choice to press for sex in that hot tub — that's why he was arrested. Polanski himself refused to condone his own behavior, once it was made plain to him that what he thought was a Gauguin-in-Polynesia scenario of an artist seducing his model turned out to be something far more terrifying to the young woman. That she was physically mature and sexually active have never let him off the hook, either. Thirteen is just too damn young. (There's a common-sensed line from vaudeville that applies: “You're not too young for me, Honey, but I'm way too old for you.”) Polanski was right to plead guilty, right to serve his time in prison, right to expect a whopping fine when he emerged. Unfortunately, as documented by filmmaker Marina Zenovich in her definitive Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, he was also right to flee the country. Justice malfunctioned so grossly in the court of Judge Laurence J. Rittenband that Polanski, who had fully cooperated up to that final moment, logically deported himself — content to let it be forever. Nobody protested his departure, then. Oblivion was presumed to be his permanent destination.

He has long defied that, and this may be why he is still so hated. He made amends with his former victim to the tune of a half-million dollars, has rebuilt his life and career, married and become a father, and — quite against the odds — found a way to make films so true to his gifts that one of them (The Pianist, 2002) won an Oscar for Best Director. Apart from the technicality of answering for his jumped bail, what moral or legal debt does he actually still owe society?

An answer is implied in The Ghost Writer, even though (apart from a few musical cues and postproduction nuances) it was completed before his arrest last September. The public figures that the swirling mobs so furiously denounce as guilty may certainly be guilty — most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they're capable of anything — yet there is always someone far worse, or a host of someones far more evil, who are making a clean getaway.

What has made Polanski's crime so particularly appalling is the recognition that he himself had survived being a defenseless child. How could a man with such exceptional vision be so blind to the defenselessness of the girl in his care? Having been robbed so violently of his own parents when young, by the Nazis, no less; having by some miracle managed, even so, to develop the strong conscience any artist requires — as his films reveal again and again — he nevertheless proved in a weak moment as capable of inflicting harm as any who ever inflicted harm upon him. His films ever since — particularly Tess and Death and the Maiden — are deep with the bitter wisdom of this. Cross' line about facing the fact that you are “capable of anything” is a truth Polanski has earned, in grief.

Echoes of this truth empower the best aspects of The Ghost Writer. Every character we meet is metaphorically a defenseless orphan. One feels this in McGregor's Hamlet-like uncertainty and impulsive mischief; in the rich fear and sarcasm that fill Brosnan's laughter; in the way Williams' hard, gemlike eyes are so paradoxically filled with suffering. Polanski is sensitive to every lost soul, but nobody is let off the hook. The elderly oracle played in a magnificent cameo by Eli Wallach is the only truly honest character we meet, and — this is no accident — he is also the most powerless.

Nobody is guilt-free in this map of the world, on this side of death — but as Polanski and Harris so merrily have it, that last, least-wanted of freedoms is easily arranged.

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