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'The Ghost Writer': A cool thriller inspires cool performances. And Kim Cattrall finally gets to ditch the ghost of SATC's Samantha.

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Shutter Island got all the ink last weekend. So I’m here to remind you not to forget about The Ghost Writer, which opened in limited release around the country on February 19. In my review I called it a “well-made, sleekly retaliatory, pleasurably paranoid tale” — which goes along with my old colleague Peter Travers’ declaration that the movie “ties you up in knots of tension.” Much of that tension has to do with the fraught intersection of political power, covert agendas and operations, and capitalism: Ewan McGregor plays a journalist hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Pierce Brosnan as a former British Prime Minister. (The PM’s name is Adam Lang, but it might as well be Not Tony Blair.) The book ought to make everyone some money. Trouble is, the original hired ghostwriter inconveniently died a drowning death. And the more the replacement “ghost” (as the scribe is consistently called) investigates the PM’s early life, the more dangerously foggy the tale becomes. Polanski, ever the master of unsettling detail, signals that murk in the color of the skies, as well as in gestures as tiny the swipe of an electronic key card or the futile brushing of beach debris from the deck of a seaside house. (The filmmaker recently won the award for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.)

Based on a thrilled by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer is a grown-up story with bite, consequence, and current-events resonance — to which the filmmaker adds his own Hitchcockian taste for stories about overmatched individuals in a forboding world. That POV, in turn, liberates the cast to concentrate their performances, rather than having to play broad and swing for mass-market popularity. As a result, everyone does superior work, from Brosnan and McGregor in the big roles to Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, James Belushi, and nonegenarian Eli Wallach in a sharp, small cameo.

And then there are the women. Ah: A fine sexual current always runs through a good Polanski film. Olivia Williams, recently seen as the encouraging, clear-eyed teacher with high hopes for her pupil (Carey Mulligan) in An Education, plays the PM’s wife — a political force in her own right who clearly knows a lot, hides a lot, and puts up with a lot, especially regarding her husband’s personal-assistant-and-then-some, Amanda. Amanda! As Kim Cattrall plays her, in pencil skirts and clicking high-heeled pumps, we instantly know that Amanda is a fiercely loyal guardian of her employer’s privacy — and, well, there’s surely something else going on between the two. I love how Cattrall conveys that Something Else with none of the cartoon-y, bedroom-eyed leers she invented for Sex and the City‘s Samantha Jones. Instead, using the British accent she can claim by rights of her UK birth, Cattrall creates an entirely new kind of powerful woman-behind-the-power.

More, please. And while we’re at it, I’m now hungry for more taut, mid-sized adult thrillers like this one. You, too?

Image credit: Guy Farrandis