The Ghost

27 April 2010

Roman Polanski's new film The Ghost is a superior political thriller with a great feel for character and narrative development. After 2002's The Pianist – for which he won the Best Director Oscar – and 2005's Oliver Twist, the film marks a return to familiar territory for the Polish-born film-maker.

Paranoid claustrophobia has prevailed in many of his films, from early works such as Cul-de-sac in 1966 to Frantic some twenty-two years later. In between these films he made, among others, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant and Chinatown.

The Ghost is adapted by Polanski and Robert Harris from the latter's own novel. It tells the story of a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) – never named – who specialises in celebrity autobiographies, who reluctantly agrees to re-draft the memoirs of ex-British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), after the previous ghost writer and close friend of the PM is found dead in what has been determined as an accident or suicide.

The film takes place largely on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts; the ghost writer joins Lang, Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and secretary Amelia (Kim Cattrall) on the island, at the summer home of the publisher responsible for the memoirs.

If the summer retreat is already mildly fraught at the prospect of this newcomer, tensions rise when news reports come through announcing Lang may be indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in the Iraq war. Parallels between Lang and Tony Blair are obvious.

At first, the nameless ghost writer is undeterred, and sets out to finish the job he is contracted to do. But he finds information left behind by his predecessor that seems to contradict Adam and Ruth's own stories regarding the former prime minister's political past. Suspicions arise in him: under what circumstances did his predecessor die, and why? What is being covered up? By whom is it being covered up, and to what end?

As a film about a rather ordinary case leading deeper and deeper into dangerous turf, The Ghost in many ways resembles Chinatown. It may not be as rich as that masterpiece, but Polanski's latest film shows the film-maker has lost none of his sensitivity to human situations and genre brush-strokes.

The film has much going for it. From the outset, its metallic visual pallet is subdued and intriguing. There's a naturalism here that stems from Polanski's general artistic approach, one which is classically trained but in tune with what ingredients make a thriller both suspenseful and authentic. Alexandre Desplat's score, for instance, might seem incongruous or jarring under others' direction, but here it becomes a fitting compliment to the unfolding events, which are both strange and bleak.

As in previous work, Polanski keeps to telling events strictly (and deftly) from his ghost writer's point-of-view, which places much responsibility not only on the character's appeal, but also on Ewan McGregor's acting skills.

McGregor's been largely overlooked as a serious performer, I think, but here he's brilliant. As the proficient but morally flawed professional, he gives a performance of such effortless subtlety that I'm frustrated he hasn't worked with more talented directors over the years.

Given that he's in every scene here, McGregor effectively carries the film. Though much of his time is spent alone, he's at his best with others – and like any well-written character, he's different depending on the company. Opposite Brosnan's Adam Lang, he's the polite, patient professional-cum-advisor. With Olivia Williams's Ruth, he's more confident, perhaps because he's a single attractive male outsider whose reluctance to take up this job means he has nothing to lose but his contract, and because Ruth herself is clearly and curiously a league above her husband in intelligence, charm and wit.

As Lang's wife, Williams is magnificent. Midway through the film, there's a brief 'romance' between Ruth and the ghost writer. McGregor perhaps foresees it but does little to stop it other than whispering “bad idea” to himself in the mirror. Williams is ambiguous, complex: her attraction to the ghost seems half-genuine, half-calculated; if she's emotionally vulnerable, she's sexually manipulative. The scene comes and goes with no consequence.

It's a MacGuffin, if you like. The film is in fact full of them. The publisher (James Belushi cameo) and his entourage of editors and staff seem to be setting up McGregor's ghost from the outset – especially when he is beaten for and mugged of an unrelated manuscript he's been casually given to read over as a favour to one of the publishing staff. Again, nothing comes of this.

As the ghost goes deeper and deeper into his predecessor's death, he and we learn of information that may or may not be fruitful. He is told by somebody familiar with the tides (Eli Wallach cameo) that there is no way his predecessor's body could have washed up where it did. The one witness who might corroborate this is in a coma; she “fell down some stairs”, the ghost writer is told.

This is exciting stuff, confident and controlled. As a thriller, it's superlative.

There is a curious conflict in the film between outdated and modern technologies. The ghost writer is appalled upon learning he must literally re-type Lang's memoirs, that he must work from the original manuscript and not from an electronic version. Indeed, the memoirs themselves, as physical pages, are treated with precious admiration not only by Lang's distrustful assistant Amelia, but by Polanski himself. His protagonist too learns over the course of the film the value of these mysterious sheets of paper: the film's final twist lies within them.

More modern technologies are, on the other hand, insidious. The ghost writer drives onto the mainland via the ferry, in search of a hotel at which he may stay. Using the same car last driven by his predecessor, his curiosity is fuelled by the in-vehicle SatNav. Following the destination already keyed-in, he and the film itself become embroiled deeper in the dangerous conspiracy.

The question of exile looms large in the film. Parallels between Lang's situation and Polanski's own, and the question of moral responsibility that arise in each, are not difficult to see. Lang and co. may be under the sanctuary of a plush summer home with high-tech security, but after the revelations of his indictment for past crimes via techno-saturated Sky News reports, it in fact becomes the ex-PM's place of forced exile. Technology becomes both inhibiting and redundant; very permeable, Lang's world is suddenly very small.

Given that Polanski's latest attempt to be sentenced in absentia for the charges brought against him in 1977 has been rejected by a Californian appeal court, it may very well turn out that The Ghost is his last work. If that is the case, at least it's a fitting one: not only is this a confident, thrilling film, it is also at times a very funny one, and shows a healthy, ironic distrust of authorities and the powers that be.

Dir: Roman Polanski | Year: 2010 | Country: France/Germany/UK
Running Time: 95 mins approx. | With: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Kim Cattrall