People, politics and paranoia

Whatever factors in his overanalyzed life have shaped his distinctive cinema, Roman Polanski is a gifted and compelling filmmaker who delivers menace, paranoia, dread, intrigue, betrayal and survival instinct in the form of suspenseful, entertaining dramas.

“The Ghost Writer,” Polanski’s new thriller, exemplifies such talents, despite a story that eventually nosedives.

Based on the novel by Robert Harris (who shares screenplay credits with Polanski), the film is lighter but still personal-stamp fare for Polanski, whose previous works include “Cul-de-sac,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist.”

A genre piece, it suggests a mix of Hitchcock, 1970s political thrillers and slick European actioners, distinguished throughout by Polanski’s disquieting visual style and bent for presenting foreboding.

Ewan McGregor, playing it (a la this movie) deceptively mild, stars as an unnamed ghostwriter hired to enliven the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a slick, Tony Blair-like former British prime minister holed up in a beach house on U.S. soil on a Martha’s Vineyard-like island. Never mind that Polanski shot the movie in Germany. The relentlessly rainy skies and early scene of a corpse on the beach set an irresistible tone.

Things turn treacherous immediately. The ghostwriter gets mugged. He learns that Lang has been accused, by a former cabinet minister, of CIA- and torture-related war crimes. At the beach house, Lang’s protectors — including Lang’s much-smarter wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, Amelia (Kim Cattrall) — prove an eerily controlling bunch.
One more thing: Lang’s previous ghostwriter — the body on the shore — died mysteriously.

The intrigue further intensifies when the ghostwriter finds, among his predecessor’s belongings, clues that lead him, assisted by a scene-stealing car navigation system, to shocking discoveries about Lang. Clearly, the first ghostwriter was murdered after uncovering these truths.

Unlike Martin Scorsese’s engrossing but ridiculous “Shutter Island,” which similarly transpires in inclement environs off the Massachusetts coast, Polanski’s drama isn’t a head-shaker.

However, its credibility makes its flaws — notably, predictable twists and an embarrassingly dim climax — all the more frustrating.

Fortunately, skilled filmmaking by Polanski saves the picture, which is, overall, a modestly boiling edge-of-your-seater.

It contains enough wit and current-affairs appeal to be filling, along with a welcome non-Hollywood closure and some Polanski-specific ingredients (including an exile theme) bound to be of interest given Polanski’s newsmaker status. There is humor and brilliantly off-kilter camerawork. Even a sandwich looks scary.

Among the cast, McGregor and Brosnan are fine in movie-star mode, while a more-textured Williams is the standout. Cattrall’s Amelia, an icy blond career-woman caricature, takes too long to get interesting.

The deservedly ubiquitous Tom Wilkinson, playing a smarmy academic, is wonderful.

The Ghost Writer
Three stars

Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach
Written by Robert Harris, Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes

In a bind
Ewan McGregor plays the title character in “The Ghost Writer,” a new thriller from director Roman Polanski.

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