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February 28, 2010

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Fiction echoes life in political thriller

IF Roman Polanski has great insights on the notion of exile, there's no evidence of them on screen in "The Ghost Writer."

What the director, now under house arrest in Switzerland, did put on-screen is a faithful, fairly absorbing adaptation of Robert Harris's political thriller "The Ghost."

The movie pokes along at times, in contrast with the snappy pace of Harris's novel. Yet Polanski cast his film well - particularly with Pierce Brosnan as a Tony Blair-esque former British prime minister, a supporting player in the story but a larger-than-life figure who enlivens and dominates "The Ghost Writer" every time he enters the picture.

"The Ghost Writer" arguably is the most populist film Polanski has done since 1988's "Frantic," starring Harrison Ford.

Adding intriguing parallels are Polanski's long absence from America and the potential exile of Brosnan's character Adam Lang, who faces the prospect of an expatriate's life in the United States after he is accused of war crimes back home.

Then there is the sudden twist Polanski's life has taken after nearly three decades in France, where he fled in 1978 to avoid sentencing for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. He was arrested in Zurich as he arrived to receive a film festival award, and he now awaits a decision on being extradited to the United States.

Likewise, headlines swirling around Lang suddenly make his dreary memoirs look like the publishing event of the year. After the drowning death of a longtime aide overseeing Lang's book, the publisher hires a veteran ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) to punch out the tedious tome.

This guy without a name, referenced in the credits merely as "The Ghost" and often called "man" by Lang, who has trouble remembering people's names, arrives at the New England estate where the former prime minister and his people are holed up just as huge news hits.

War crimes

Lang has been accused of turning terrorist suspects in Pakistan over to the CIA for torture, prompting protests, calls for a war crimes trial and a flurry at his publishing house to transform the book into a tell-all account of the war on terror.

Olivia Williams is perfectly matched with Brosnan as Lang's ferociously intelligent and sardonic wife, while Kim Cattrall is all crisp efficiency and cat-fight-ish rivalry as Lang's chief aide and presumed mistress.

With Harris as screenwriter, the film adheres closely to his story, though he and Polanski add a few more conventional cloak-and-dagger tidbits than the novel contains.

Polanski also injects some macabre touches - among them a dubious ending that elicits chuckles partly because of its wicked humor, partly because it is a rather silly and dismissive send-off to the film's protagonist.

Then again, McGregor is a bit of a blank throughout, continually outshone by co-stars, even those with barely more than walk-on roles. That may nicely suit a ghostwriter whose own voice is subsumed so he can chronicle the lives of others.

Yet considering that McGregor's at the center of almost every scene in the film, it makes for a pretty thin leading man. We are supposed to care what happens to this guy, but ghostlike McGregor is a wispy presence, subordinate to almost everyone else on screen.

That includes Tom Wilkinson as a slick, haughty academic with CIA connections and James Belushi as a fiercely funny bull of a publishing executive whose company paid US$10 million for Lang's memoirs. Timothy Hutton, though, fails to register much as a shark-like attorney for Lang.

Brosnan and Williams are the real highlights, both such dynamos that you feel their absence and yearn for their return during the long stretches when McGregor is mucking about on his own.

The film showcases one of the best scenes in the book, as McGregor's ghost uses a car-navigation system to retrace the fatal path of his predecessor.

It is a cool sequence, although as other movies inevitably toy with the technology, Hollywood no doubt will find a way to turn it into a cliche.


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