The Ghost

The Ghost

****

Reviewed by: Andrew Grant

There’s an old adage about how great works of literature rarely translate well to the big screen, but a second or even third-rate novel in the right hands can be prime material for compelling cinema. Such is the case with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, based on a novel by that purveyor of paranoid political pulp, Robert Harris.

Ewan McGregor plays the unnamed titular scribe who lands a gig ghost writing the memoirs of former and recently disgraced British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after his predecessor has been found dead, a suspected suicide. Lang, currently involved in a scandal over his complicity in the torture of Iraqis, is tucked away on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. Suspecting that there’s much more to Lang’s story than what’s on the page, the Ghost takes to amateur sleuthing, uncovering a web of secrets, lies, and corruption that that spans from the US government, to the CIA, and right down to Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams).


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Harris and Polanski (who co-authored the screenplay) make no effort to hide the references to Tony Blair and Cherie Booth, but political comeuppance, perhaps at the top of Harris’ agenda, is of little concern to Polanski. With its gloomy grey skies, permanently tense atmosphere, and persistently menacing tone, the film is more of a mood-piece – a suspenseful, intelligent thriller that has just as much appeal to the auteur’s fans as it does to someone who has never heard of Knife In The Water or even Chinatown.

The relative simplicity of the source material (compared with, say, Oliver Twist, which the director tackled in 2005) gives Polanski the freedom to flex his cinematic muscles, and there’s a remarkable subtlety and economy at play in the film’s disparate elements. There are no grand set pieces, no third-act cliff-hanger moments, nor does the screenplay get bogged down in needless exposition. Though clearly a more commercial effort than much of his back catalogue, there are no directorial compromises in an effort to reach a broader audience. Polanski, no stranger to paranoia and a master of physical space, uses the isolated, nearly all-glass beach house to the same effect as he does the apartments in Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, and The Tenant.

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Brosnan has never been as loose as he is here, and his performance as the charismatic but troubled former leader is pitch perfect - his ability to go from charming to hostile in the blink of an eye is remarkably nuanced. It’s clear Lang is hiding things, but the depth and breadth of the subterfuge is too much for even him to comprehend. The cast includes some brief but strong performances by Eli Wallach, Tom Wilkinson (who is rapidly becoming the go-to bad-guy in corporate/political thrillers) and even Jim Belushi as an over-zealous publisher.

Playing the Prime Minister’s wife as a modern-day femme fatale, Williams is ideal for the complex amalgam of frustration, bitterness, desperation and seductiveness that the role requires. The weak link in the chain is Kim Cattrall, who plays Lang’s private secretary. Though born in the UK, her British accent is too inconsistent, and no matter how hard she tries she just can’t seem to shake her Sex And The City persona.

Though shot well before his recent troubles in Switzerland, it’s difficult not to see parallels in the director’s long-time legal predicament. Like many of Polanski’s characters, Adam Lang is a man with a morally and ethically dubious past, and his attempts to avoid prosecution by the International Court in The Hague certainly mirror the director’s own dealings with the California legal system. Though the film addresses the idea of rewriting one’s history, it would be pointless to give that too close a reading. The Ghost Writer is reminiscent of the best Hollywood paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, before they felt the need to dumb everything down. It’s an accomplished work of a master that is also a tremendous bit of fun.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2010
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A ghost writer recruited to pen the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister gets caught up in a web of political intrigue, lies and corruption.
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Chris ****

Director: Roman Polanski

Writer: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Kim Cattrall, Eli Wallach, James Belushi

Year: 2010

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Germany, UK

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