The Ghost (Writer)

Film Review by Delme Stephenson

At 76, veteran director Roman Polanski shows no sign of fatigue with his new intriguing suspense thriller, ‘The Ghost’ (or The Ghost Writer if you're in the US). The film is based on a Richard Harris best-seller and has been adapted for the screen by both Harris and Polanski. The film, although certainly politically contrived, is considerably well constructed and will not disappoint those in search of a masterly treat.

Ewan McGregor stars as a cynical ghost-writer (with no name he is credited as only ‘The Ghost’) agrees to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), whose previous ghost-writer died after an unfortunate accident. It appears to be a straightforward assignment for our new ghost: a lot of money for completing a job that’s almost finished. However an air of growing uncertainty begins to descend as our protagonist is mugged coming home from his initial meeting, the assailants trying to steal a worthless manuscript. McGregor, shaken by the experience, still has to leave London for the United States where Lang now resides in a remote island mansion off the north-eastern seaboard. There McGregor has both access to the former Prime Minister and his predecessor’s ghost-written hardcopy of the memoirs. Although Lang’s mansion retreat is relatively secluded, McGregor is not alone. Lang’s entourage includes his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), Administrative personnel led by Lang’s mistress Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and a sizable security detail. No sooner has McGregor reached his destination Lang is charged with war crimes that suggest he illegally secured suspected terrorists and handed them over to the CIA. As the media descend on Lang’s mansion and international legal ramifications intensify, Lang departs for Washington for political support. Our Ghost, now in Laing’s house and left relatively free, begins to find clues that suggest his dead predecessor left a secret in the memoirs linking the former Prime Minister to something not only sinister, but also potentially life threatening.

The film has been causing something of a stir since its release both in terms of its content and its director. Polanski was arrested in September 2009 in Switzerland at the behest of U.S. authorities over an outstanding and much publicised international arrest warrant. His win at the Berlin Festival for best director in February was seen in some quarters as a politically motivated verdict. The film’s blatant allusion to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led Britain into a questionable war with Iraq is represented by Brosnan’s Adam Lang.

The film is a success because Polanski is able to create and maintain a continual sense of haunting unease throughout the running time. He deliberately builds suspense by placing characters against isolated environments. The mood of the piece is also darkened by a feeling of futility and inevitability. It’s done slowly without the need to shock; it’s refreshing to find that we are slowly absorbed into this world.

The film begins with a car abandoned on a boat car park on a journey back to Lang’s island and is followed by a long shot of a body washed up against the shore. Locations further enhance the feeling of entrapment. Grey and foreboding London almost appears cosy next to Lang’s ocean view mansion where the grey drab house feels colder inside than the soulless winter weather that encloses it. The mood of the piece coalesces at one point in the film when McGregor is led by a Sat Nav programmed by his predecessor (the ghost in the machine) to areas of interest. Eventually McGregor is chased aboard the same ferry route where our original ghost-writer car was abandoned.

This film also feels to be quite a personal film for Polanski, perhaps more so than the Pianist. Brosnan’s Lang is forced to travel by international law to US protected territories. McGregor’s character is constantly being monitored and impeded from doing what he wants to do. At one point Ruth Lang dryly compares her stay on the island as to Napoleon on Saint Helena. However it must be noted the script provides the cast with sharp, witty dialogue to deflate the oppressive tone of the piece. The political satire and allusion doesn’t work for me. It’s unnecessarily diverting and works against the tension that is effectively created throughout. However I must admit Adam Lang does elicit humour in some scenes. But when you have a film that works as subtly as this film does to create a mood of lingering danger and suspense it’s hard to reconcile the political elements and allusions that are drawn in broad stabbing stokes. I disagree that Pierce Brosnan’s impression of Blair is deftly handled. The politics in this film are handled bluntly, and needlessly so.

Ewan McGregor carries the film with sheer charisma, but his cockney accent isn’t entirely convincing and his character is a comparative blank against those that surround him. Olivia Williams gives a particularly standout performance in her portrayal of Lang’s wife, who appears as an uncompromising figure riddled with complex insecurities. She is counterbalanced by Kim Cattrall who can do alluring, but doesn’t quite manage to nail her performance. It’s great to see character actor Tom Wilkinson and living legend Eli Wallach in small but pivotal roles.

Regardless of what has been said about this film it manages to deliver a submerging experience. Although ‘The Ghost’ is not a classic or even important film, Polanski has returned with panache. It’s hardly surprising considering the director’s numerous past successes, but ‘The Ghost’ is still a note worthy addition to his cannon of work. If you want to watch a mature suspense thriller with memorable direction with more than a nod and a wink to Hitchcock, I would consider watching this.