Little things can take you out of Roman Polanski's intriguing political thriller The Ghost Writer. 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 his fugitive-from-justice status.
But the movie is a fairly involving and reasonably puzzling murder mystery from master storytellers — the Oscar-winning director and British novelist Robert Harris (Enigma, Fatherland).
Ewan McGregor is an author whose agent lands him a doozy of a deal. He will polish and/or rewrite the memoirs of a newly retired British prime minister, and he'll be paid handsomely.
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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 the American-led war on terror.
Another complication: There's just one month to do this job. And "the ghost" will need to fly to America to interview with 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 the 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?"
The writer and his subject meet and size each other up, and then settle down to work — or would if the whole world hadn't collapsed around them. Before he knows it, the 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 the ghost keeps getting clues that there were dangerous things that the previous ghost found out.
Polanski doesn't oversell the chills, turning this into more of a mind-game exercise, 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 is 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 who offers some pieces of the puzzle.
That puzzle, however, might solve itself in your head long before the flatly staged chases and confrontations of the third act, if you're not distracted by the oddly European deck hands of the Massachusetts ferry boat, the bizarre accents of barmen and hotel clerks and the like.
It's not a Polanski masterpiece, 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 affect how we see his work on camera.