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Photograph by Guy Ferrandis
POWER POLITICS: Kim Cattrall (left), Olivia Williams and Pierce Brosnan are at the fraught center of the storm in 'The Ghost Writer

New England Noir

Roman Polanski's past genius haunts his latest thriller

By Christina Waters

FROM ITS first moments, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer sets its film noir trap and then lets us savor the bait before we happily succumb. Owing as much to Hitchcock as it does to Polanski's dark masterworks, The Ghost Writer is by turns stylish, brooding and tense. It's also often predictable. While by no means a masterpiece, it is such a good-looking thriller, so expertly laced with eerily relevant political innuendo, that it makes for a juicy two hours of viewing.

Loosely based on recent events in global politics, the story follows a British journalist (Ewan McGregor) hired to clean up the memoirs of a British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) whose previous ghost writer has just turned up dead. McGregor is scooped up and flown to a fortified Cape Cod island compound where the PM and his entourage are luxuriously encamped. Things immediately thicken up, thanks to the tangible tension in the household between the PM, his curvaceous chief of staff (Kim Cattrall) and his intellectual wife Ruth (played with scene-stealing precision by Olivia Williams). The new ghost writer is no sooner ensconced in the isolated compound and ready to start interviews when the minister's past flares up, thanks to accusations of human rights offenses. The world media fans the controversy to wildfire proportions just as sinister behavior erupts at the beach compound. Polanski tightly laces these two plot strands during the film's first hour.

As Lang and his handlers try to placate media hysteria, the new ghost writer tracks down clues as to the death of the PM's former writer. Like Jack Nicholson's detective Jake Gittes in the Polanski masterpiece Chinatown, McGregor is a man in jeopardy, unsure of just who to trust in the high-security household of bodyguards, publicists and attorneys. Danger might come in the form of an enraged and jealous wife or from the prime minister's former defense secretary, whose phone number turns up in the dead ghost writer's personal effects. With help from the urgent, moody score by Alexandre Desplat, the caper moves swiftly from McGregor's shrinking options to the implications of mysterious black limos and carefully planted clues.

For all its good looks and atmospheric shots of desolate Atlantic coast dunes, however, The Ghost Writer's plot twists are visible a mile away, and most of the final hour vamps through a litany of sudden rain storms, cocktail confessions and midnight visitations. McGregor can almost hold it together, and while he's no Nicholson, he manages the right pitch between paranoia and frustration to keep us in the game.

Polanski is such a seasoned pro that it is easy not to notice his attention to detail. Long, slow shots of neon reflected on wet tarmac, sudden flashes of crimson, corridors of cold, dark marble—the serpentine cinematography moves the story forward. Also, the film cleverly crafts one of the most ingenious uses of GPS in the mystery genre.

Since this is neonoir, we know there will be a twist at the end. And there is. But some of the film's appeal is the view of the gorgeously aging Brosnan chewing his role into oblivion. He has honed to high sheen the ability to enfold lies in nuanced looks of innocence that also hint at genuine surprise. The former James Bond is having fun with this chance to play a weary, troubled head of state. The softening of Brosnan's handsome features only adds depth and decadence to his every expression. Even B-grade Polanski is well worth a tumble.

THE GHOST WRITER (PG-13; 136 min.), directed by Roman Polanski, written by Polanski and Robert Harris, photographed by Pawel Edelman and starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, plays at the Del Mar.

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