There’s a kind of unassuming okayness about The Ghost Writer – as it’s called in the credits, though the publicity is reverting to Robert Harris’s shorter title in the UK – that suggests a solid journeyman director like Peter Hyams, Franklin J. Schaffner or Renny Harlin (don’t sneer – I’d be grateful for a film by any of them on a miserable Sunday afternoon); however, it was directed by Roman Polanski, whose career (and life) may have had its downs, but who is usually associated with much more personal, distinctive work. Even Frantic seemed more his, somehow. You can find Polanskian elements – like the business with the trundling suitcase that proves an inconvenience everywhere it’s hauled but contains the mcguffin manuscript – and even a personal resonance in that its semi-imaginary British Prime Minister has to contemplate exile from his homeland in order to stay out of the International War Crimes court in the Hague (which America, like China and North Korea, doesn’t recognise). Harris says he had the idea for his story well before Tony Blair came to power, though the main characters here are transparent fictionalisations of the Blairs and their circle in a way somehow much less intriguing than the fantasias on real people who populated the political conspiracy novels of Richard Condon; it’s possible that the idea for the book came to Harris during a viewing of Mike Hodges’ Pulp, the criminally neglected black comic follow-up to Get Carter, in which Michael Caine plays a pulpsmith who is in exactly the same situation as Harris’s ghost, pulled into a web of murder and intrigue when he takes the high-paid job of writing a big shot’s perhaps-revelatory memoirs.
The Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is signed up to replace the mysteriously-dead collaborator who was working with former PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) and finds himself stranded on a rainswept, desolate island where Lang’s entourage have holed up at a publisher’s lair – occasionally glimpsing menacing figures, protesters (Lang has gone along with American interests and got Britain into a couple of wars) and crushes of journos when a former Foreign Secretary shops Lang to the War Crimes people (as in the TV movie The Trial of Tony Blair, this is presumably because they can’t go after any American government official but can nab a Brit). As usual in films about writing, there’s a lot of talk about rush deadlines but few scenes of typing, printing or researching because the plot takes over. Adam is charismatic but vague, with Brosnan doing an interesting Blair variant complete with big grin, while Olivia Williams is martyred yet seductive as his activist wife (who shags the writer in a manner which suggests Harris’s fantasy life is rich) and Kim Cattrall is all cut-glass English as a sexier combination of spin doctor and hatchet woman. The plot ticks on as hints in the manuscript and oddities about the death of the author prompt the scribbler into risky investigations which get him pursued by hit-men and in huddles with shady characters. Is the PM a deeply-buried CIA mole who has sold out his country for US interests? Which of the women is Lady Macbeth? What’s the vital clue coded into the manuscript? And will the Ghost meet the deadline? Everything gets sorted out, and – in true conspiracy movie style – shadowy types tie things up with assassins, and the monolith lumbers on.
The film cannily conceals most of its surprises – you’ll guess them, but not straight off – and enjoys the smoothly arch performance styles of Brosnan, Cattrall and Williams set against McGregor’s hopelessly out-of-his-depth protagonist. The Blairs must be torn between cringing at the unflattering implications of the plot and being represented onscreen by such sexy people. It’s still minor Polanski, though.