Monday, 23 August 2010


The most interesting thing about The Ghost is the result of outside events. It's impossible to look at the plight of Piers Brosnan, playing a former British Prime Minister not a million miles unlike Tony Blair, who's facing arrest and extradition for war crimes charges at the ICC in The Hague, and not recall that Polanski was in a similar situation while the film was being made, as California sought his extradition from Switzerland for jumping bail rather than face sentencing on his plea-bargain for drugging and sodomising a 13 year old girl at Jack Nicholson's house back in 1977. It's hard to think the director himself didn't see a certain parallel.

In fact, Polanski's adaptation of Robert Harris' novel is pretty faithful; a little less concerned with the internal working of the Labour government perhaps, and indeed with the mechanics of the plot itself, and more concerned with the situations he found in the book--the setting, in which wintry Martha's Vineyard is turned into something resembling the St Pierre of Patrice Leconte's The Widow Of St Pierre, and into which Ewan McGregor as the politically naive ghostwriter hired to make Adam Lang's (ie, Blair's) memoir readable after his predecessor's suicide, is thrown. In this situation McGregor is not the only ghost; he moves into the previous writer's room, inheriting his clothes, suitcase, and clues. But McGregor himself is indeed a ghost; calling the film The Ghost Writer, as originally intended (see above right--and orignally Nicholas Cage was set for the befuddled writer character) would lose those resonances. The ghost is never named, not even in moments of intimacy or danger, and his ignorance of the politics into which he's been thrown allows the plot to be explained to an audience assumed to be even more ignorant. But that's an odd conceit; the idea that a professor might be a CIA recruiter, and that British pols might well have been recruited, is hardly so far-fetched as to come as the sort of revelation it is here presented as being; when the Ghost finally starts looking ON THE INTERNET he finds the information easily enough, and it's hard to think it might not have received just slightly more attention beforehand.

McGregor is well suited for this role, which plays on his limitations as an actor, much as Polanski played on Harrison Ford's in Frantic. McGregor seems a cross between the declaiming cost-accountant of Kenneth Branagh and the dazed puppy appeal of David Beckham; the actor he most resembles is the frantically ingratiating Jamie Oliver. Sticking your head down the toilet can certainly get you a long way in British film. He's not helped by the even more severe limitations of Kim Cattrall as Lang's personal assistant; she's playing her Sex And The City role, only makes it different by not ever smiling, which indicate she's a no-nonsense player in this political game; it's very funny to watch her and McGregor bounce off each other, over and under playing.

Having said that, Brosnan is terrific as Lang, and Olivia Williams even more spectacular as his wife. Despite the relative predictability of the plot, its ultimate twist is a good one, and it makes both actors' characterisations carry even more depth and more skill. There are also many small touches which make the film enjoyable; Jim Belushi's American publisher beating up on his English counterpart, Eli Wallach's conspiracy theorist on his unlikely Vineyard shack, and best of all McGregor's being directed by his predecessor's sat-nav to Tom Wilkinson, the professor at the heart of the conspiracy.

There are also some weird errors, like the Vineyard ferry offering 'single or return' tickets, or the former British foreign secretary (the Robin Cook figure) McGregor calls in New York for help somehow showing up in Woods Hole by car in less time than it takes Lang's private jet.

In the end it's many of the familiar Polanski touches, including an Oriental gardener who might have stepped out of Chinatown, that make The Ghost enjoyable, if less than totally convincing. There is that Poalnski sense that things happen, out of the blue, and are made to happen by forces beyond your control, and that believing you can control them, while not even understanding they are there, is fatal. It's a flawed movie, and perhaps one imbued with rather too much self-concern, especially if we look at Williams' Cheri Blair character as a stand-in for Emmanuelle Seignet, but it's an entertaining one, a better thriller than Frantic, and it's ending is, in many ways, more satisfying than the novel's.

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