Polanski plays the suspense in political thriller
By Roger Moore
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Little things can take you out of Roman Polanski's intriguing political thriller "The Ghost Writer."
Things such as the way the actors mouth swear words but somehow end up uttering mild oaths to earn a PG-13 rating. Odd accents and alien locations give away that Polanski's mostly-American-set film plainly wasn't filmed here.
And then there's the little matter of the filmmaker's increasingly complicated fugitive-from-justice status.
But the movie itself is a fairly involving and reasonably puzzling murder mystery from a couple of master storytellers — the Oscar-winning director and British novelist Robert Harris ("Enigma," "Fatherland").
Ewan McGregor is a successful author whose agent lands him a doozy of a deal. He'll polish and/or rewrite the memoirs of a newly retired British prime minister and he'll be paid handsomely for it.
A wrinkle — the prime minister, played by Pierce Brosnan and plainly based on Tony Blair, is controversial. There's even talk of a war crimes indictment based on his coziness with a U.S.-led anti-terrorism war.
The "ghost" has to fly to America to interview the PM. There are palace intrigues as the assistant (Kim Cattrall, cast against type) and wife (Olivia Williams) engage in a power struggle. The ghost is mugged on his way out of a meeting with the publisher (James Belushi, REALLY cast against type).
Oh, and the previous ghost writer, the PM's longtime aide, drowned under mysterious circumstances.
Not for the first time, the ghost asks his agent, "What have you gotten me into?"
Our Ghost (that's how he's addressed) is sucked into the PM's circle, doing damage control as the press and protesters converge on the Massachusetts island where they're holed up. And he keeps getting clues that the previous ghost found out dangerous things.
Polanski doesn't over-sell the chills, turning this into more of a mind game, rather like his equally rain-swept "Death and the Maiden."
Brosnan does politically "mercurial" well, McGregor handles the writer-in-over-his-head bit with skill and Williams makes a convincing, angry, mistrustful spouse. Tom Wilkinson shows up as a cagey old college "chum" of the prime minister's, and Eli Wallach is an elderly islander with some pieces of the puzzle.
That puzzle, however, may solve itself in your head long before the flatly staged chases and confrontations of the third act. That is, if you're not distracted by the oddly European deckhands of the Massachusetts ferry, the bizarre accents of barmen and hotel clerks, and the like.
It's not one of Polanski's masterpieces, but "The Ghost Writer" doesn't dilute his reputation as a master of suspense. It's a pity he has let his off-camera problems so dampen how we see his work on camera.