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.
Michael Brooke I read Harris’ novel immediately after watching the film, and couldn’t help but notice (a) that the film sticks to its source so closely that I wondered whether there was even an interim screenplay, and (b) pretty much every touch I originally assumed was a Polanski interpolation, including things like the hotel receptionist’s bizarre Victorian mob-cap get-up, originated on the page.
Kim Newman Stephen King noted much the same thing about Rosemary’s Baby. The story goes that Polanski had only made films from his own scripts before that, and didn’t know he was allowed to make changes to the book. The Tenant and Tess are also close to their sources – The Ninth Gate slightly less so. Of course, I’m not sure Robert Harris deserves the respect accorded Ira Levin, let alone Thomas Hardy.
Chris Cooke Perhaps then, if not in screenplay writing, then Polanski’s interests as a director (specifically when adapting a novel and visualising it) are in framing the narrative, selecting and controlling pace and tone through shots, light, cutting and working with actors and technicians and other artists… and not just being faithful or unfaithful to a book – if it ain’t broke, etc… but, though I find I can tell Polanski’s films by the framing, lighting, eye for detail, composition, pace, it is particularly the tone of a film that is his as a filmmaker – the way he creates a very dislocated, almost artificial tone seems to be something he has explored from the beginning and work about books, writers and storytellers have particularly occupied him in recent years with their unreliable narrators and dead authors meaning he can explore that artifice to his own satisfaction, and sometimes mine… but I do miss films like Cul De Sac.
Dave Pirie: thanks for flagging this for me. I glanced at it but did not read when you put it out for I wanted to see the film first about which I had little hope. The reason for this was I had read the book which seemed utterly flat-footed and pedestrian, not to mention implausible.
But in the event I found the film a bit of a revelation, almost a return to the Polanski of ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ ( and now I check I see several US critics felt the same). Of course in terms of its material I would not put it in that category: it is still a little basic and Brosnan is utterly wrong as Blair–but then apparently Polanski wasn’t interested in the comparison and the film is all the better for it. Indeed, unlike the novel he is not even that interested in the character, who is the most one dimensional here. It is what surrounds him that preoccupies Polanski, the dark shadows beyond the media glare.
In this respect the film has an extraordinarily subtle and lingering atmosphere typified by the sheer richness of its sound-track and score , by a multitude of tiny visual touches and flourishes and by an amazing use of location and weather. It also contains a cumulatively affecting performance from Ewan McGregor who appears (and nobody has so far as i know said this) to be play the Ghost character as a down-at-heel David Bowie just as Depp used Keith Richards in ‘Pirates’. He certainly sports a Bowie-style cockney accent and his wry one-liners, many not from the book, are pitched perfectly. There are great performances too from Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson.
I can’t therefore agree this could have been Peter Hyams or somebody. It is much more sensitive to the script than that, in fact I would go so far as to say a film like this– which translates the minutiae of its scenes with such thought and love– could only ever be possible these days if the director’s name is on the script. For it is a script that Polanski has so obviously tailored to his own directorial skills. The ending for example may in narrative terms be predictable but is set it up so originally that we see nothing of the action at all in a way that renews the whole idea. In this respect the film utterly lacks the straining for effect, and gradually diminishing returns, we saw in Polanksi’s more recent genre movies. ‘Frantic’ for example visibly fought to match its opening and gradually (sinkingly for the audience) failed
It was obvious to anyone ‘Rsoemary’s Baby’ as a book would make a great film. What is so intriguing, puzzling and fascinating about ‘The Ghost’ (or ‘The Ghost Writer’) is it reveals what can be done by a director who truly devotes himself even to the slightest material. I am going back before it leaves the cinemas and how often do we find ourselves doing that?
Rory Ford Peter Hyams would have crowbarred in a couple of car chases. Oddly, the wintry bleakness (and doubling theme)reminded me of The Tenant while the literary trickery recalled a moment in Rosemary’s Baby (don’t want to spoil it for anyone). No, it’s not as good as either but I thought it an unusually satisfying mainstream thriller and I rather liked Brosnan too – actors doing impersonations of famous folk is getting really tiresome (especially around awards season) and the fact that he came off as rather weak – essentially handing the film to Olivia Williams – is quite fitting.
Anne Billson Saw it twice and on each occasion found it completely absorbing in a low-key, undemonstrative way you don’t often encounter nowadays. Wondering if this is one of the reasons why (please forgive me for linking to something I wrote, but it’s easier than setting it all out again): http://www.guardian.co.uk/…/first-person-narrative-the…
Also loved the Eli Wallach cameo.
Rory Ford You’ve put your finger on it Ms Billson – for me anyway. I’m not that keen on McGregor but his lack of charisma worked here as he was essentially playing a cipher (or ghost). It was increasingly easy for the viewer to put themselves in his shoes.
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Stephen Volk I love your observations, Anne.