For a portrait of an unfinished life, Christopher Sandford's biography of director Roman Polanski feels unnaturally cyclical. While Sandford certainly isn't the first to connect Polanski's 2002 Oscar win for the Holocaust tale The Pianist with his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland, he couples that scene of triumph and several others with a hopeful repetition of tabloid rumors that Polanski will soon settle his legal troubles with America connected with his 1977 sexual assault on a minor. Mostly, it feels like a device that Polanski would never use, and at odds with Sandford's largely cool and even-handed appraisal of his life.
Sandford's unauthorized Polanski: A Biography relies on hundreds of interviews in retelling Polanski's life, beginning in wartime Warsaw. His old friends suggest that the duplicity he used to evade capture also helped preserve his reputation as the enfant terrible of the state's film school as he plotted his escape to the West. Even on the set of his first feature, Knife In The Water, he was regarded as an exacting taskmaster on set—his favorite refrain, quoted over and over by collaborators, is "We go again"—and a charming, promiscuous rogue between pictures.
Sandford recognizes Polanski's tragic flaw as pride, which exacerbated his legal problems and jeopardized a number of his projects. (On the set of his failed thriller The Ninth Gate, it also caused him to send a producers' representative tasked with keeping the production on schedule head-first into a bowl of dip.) But the 1977 incident that overshadows the book, the topic of the festival doc Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired, is never contested: Instead, Sandford scrawls his disapproval over Polanski's failure to act contrite in the wake of the charges, and over the legal system which included that behavior as evidence. Sandford avails himself of previously sealed court documents to build his argument that with no written plea-bargain agreement, Polanski would have been institutionalized or jailed indefinitely (for "evalulation") if he hadn't fled the country. The indirect structure Sandford adopts to give Polanski some measure of vindication while he's still alive and working underlines the real mystery of its non-speaking subject—not about what he considers to be his best work, but that, given the tumult, he has been able to continue working at all.