But Polanski, while dealing coincidentally with comparable buckets of rain around a comparable island fortress, proves himself a much better judge than Scorsese (which one’s the taller, though?), pacing himself prudently, walking a razor’s edge between anxiety and mirth, allowing the plot to unfold without rush, getting to know the cast of characters as palpable human beings — Olivia Williams a standout as the politician’s astringent wife — and keeping the bedrock of political piety pretty well buried. (I hope I can speak this way without signalling a willingness to sign some petition for Polanski’s release from house arrest in Switzerland, a totally separate issue.) In the later stages of his career, it is in genre pieces such as Frantic and The Ninth Gate, and now this, that the director’s mastery is most apparent, not where he subjugates it to greater causes: the classics (Oliver Twist), the Holocaust (The Pianist), political torture front and center (Death and the Maiden) rather than, as it is here, political torture in the wings. He seems in these circumstances to raise the level of his game by necessity, as though he can’t count on his teammates, can’t coast.
His personality, his imprint, is in any event ever-present in the scooped-out bowl-shaped space, so open and ominous and oppressive, and in the off-center observations of people and places. Yet he feels no Scorsesean urge to throw in the kitchen sink, or even the spatula, the can opener, the coffee pot, the meat cleaver. Knife and fork will suffice. And when at last he elects to turn up the heat on the stove top — the brilliant device of following a preprogrammed computer route in the dead man’s car to a destination unknown, the prickly interview that awaits at that destination (“A less equable man than I,” rasps a pedantic Tom Wilkinson, “might begin to find your questions impertinent”), and the black sedan with tinted windows lurking outside afterwards — the effect is delectable. A sustained tingle. It may not hold all the way to the end, but it comes close.