So-so material elevated by stirring direction, or formally impeccable craftsmanship wasted on a sluggish suspense yarn? No matter your glass-half-whatever perspective, The Ghost Writer functions largely as a showcase for its under-house-arrest helmsman Roman Polanski, whose latest is a subtle visual stunner awash in creeping paranoia and anxiety. Hired to ghost-pen the autobiography of a recent Tony Blair-ish British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) under fire for alleged war-on-terror human rights violations – a job that opened after the original scribe died under mysterious circumstances – an unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) soon finds himself entangled in a web of political and romantic intrigue. Despite hot-button parallels, Polanski isn’t interested in dissecting current military and homeland security issues, sidestepping real debate in favor of thriller tension and unease, a mood he expertly crafts via a Martha’s Vineyard granite-and-glass compound setting that exudes menace, as well as deep-focus cinematography marked by visual lines expanding into the frame. The result is a feeling of drowning, which props up a narrative that, despite well-nuanced performances by Brosnan, McGregor and Olivia Williams as Brosnan’s canny wife, bogs down in a second act short on heat. An understated late showdown between McGregor’s ghost and Tom Wilkinson’s intimidating professor is so taut as to distract attention away from the low-stakes game being played. Yet bringing one back to earth, the film’s central, climactic revelations prove ho-hum, apt to make one wonder what all the fuss was about and, ultimately, make one wish that Polanski’s superb artistry – highlighted by a gorgeous final shot that, matching an earlier image, conveys the impossibility of wrestling control and order over looming, imposing forces – was at the behest of less disposable material.