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A low-spirited 'Ghost'

Cold to the touch, Roman Polanski's 'The Ghost Writer' is a thriller with scant thrills

Chris Garcia

For such a tightly wound and elegantly told thriller, "The Ghost Writer" doesn't give off much heat and hardly makes a case of why you should care about its central mystery. It's a Roman Polanski film, but you might not know this without the words "Roman Polanski" appearing on the screen. It's fine a serviceable thinking-person's political thriller with a slick, professional veneer. What's missing is the passion of an artist galvanized by his material.

On the other hand, I could see director Tony Scott getting hold of the talky story and rolling his aesthetic wrecking ball through it, piling on plotlines, ramming in hyperbolic chases, blowing things up and making characters yell their heads off.

So Polanski's approach is commendable, a kind of calibrated cool, even if it veers toward anonymous. Shot austerely, in silver, ash and black, the movie simmers in the relaxed precision of a master storyteller. It emits a dull beautifulness.

The minimalism fits the low-voltage story, co-scripted by Polanski and Robert Harris (based on Harris' novel). Ewan McGregor's author is hired to ghost-write the memoir of Britain's former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a bitter, embattled character clearly based on Tony Blair, whose tenure during the current Iraq war was marred by his cooperative relationship with "that damned fool in the White House."

Lang's initial ghost writer has died in suspicious circumstances, and McGregor is brought in to rewrite the first draft. As he's proceeding to interview Lang and do his own digging, news breaks that Lang is being accused of war crimes for allowing the CIA to secretly fly British citizens, suspected terrorists, out of the country for enhanced interrogations. A jolted McGregor assumes a new ferocity, and paranoia, in his task. The more he learns about the accusations the more his world closes in and every move he makes is shadowed and fraught.

At first, the movie seems to be about the nature of writing and the power of words to fog and massage facts and recast history. That's nudged aside for slow thriller mechanics, with inescapable nods to Hitchcock at his most methodical.

Big Secrets loom without the pulse of suspense. The movie works on such a murmuring frequency that the stakes never press. I kept thinking: So what? Even the film's gotcha plays like a climactic shrug. (The final shot, however, is a doozy.)

Polanski usually takes great care with his characters — Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion," Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby," Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown," Adrien Brody in "The Pianist." But he shows no empathy for the people in "The Ghost Writer." McGregor's writer goes without a name; he's just the ghost, and he plays him like a faceless cipher. It's hard to get behind him.

The other main characters, played by Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson, are bundled enigmas whom you can't quite trust or get close to. They're airless creations, stifled and dimly shaded. They're perfect for this movie.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

Rating: PG-13 for language, brief nudity, violence, drug reference . Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor.