Polanski's new film is haunted by the present

The spirit of the Iraq Inquiry hangs over Roman Polanski's new film, 'The Ghost', which premiered in Berlin last night

In icy Berlin this week, there have been plenty of requests for interviews with Roman Polanski, whose new film The Ghost premiered yesterday.

Of course, although some of the more absent-minded media hadn't noticed it, Polanski is far away in Switzerland, under house arrest in Gstaad, still facing the consequences of that statutory rape charge more than 30 years ago. He wasn't in town for the film's packed press conference. In his absence, the film's stars and producers fielded respectful, generally softball questions, agreeing among themselves what a demanding but talented craftsman the Pole is while largely declining to discuss his private life.

The Ghost isn't vintage Polanski but is still a strangely potent and disorienting film that works on many different levels. The politics are foregrounded. It may be coincidence that the film is receiving its first screenings bang in the middle of the Chilcot inquiry in the UK and at a time when yet more damaging revelations about Britain's security services are emerging in the press. Nonetheless, the screenplay (which Polanski co-wrote with novelist Robert Harris from Harris's novel) is full of elements that will seem instantly familiar, especially to British viewers.

There are very obvious parallels, too, between the story that The Ghost tells and the current plight of the Polish director. The film is about an ageing celebrity in retreat, with the media pack in pursuit of him. The celebrity in this case isn't a film-maker suffering the effects of a sex scandal from long ago. It's a politician who has been accused of war crimes. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is an ex-British prime minister who during his time in power, it is alleged, handed over suspected terrorists for torture by the CIA. The US is a safe haven for Lang: his American friends won't give him up to the war crimes court. The irony is apparent. For Polanski, the situation is quite the reverse. Europe provided him with sanctuary (at least until his arrest last September) while America was the place he most needed to avoid.

Lang is the ostensibly progressive politician who has cosied up to the right-wing US president. He is an ex-student actor who is able to smile for the cameras, even when accused of sending young British soldiers to their death.

In Berlin yesterday, the issue that preoccupied the press conference was less the Polanski sex scandal from the 1970s than the events leading up to the war in Iraq and ex-PM Tony Blair's part in them. Harris joked that the book he published as fiction in 2007 now seemed like documentary.

The outspoken writer went on to rail against his erstwhile friend Blair and his part in the rush to war in Iraq. "There is a lot of disquiet in Britain about that war. There was surprise that Tony Blair didn't make any gestures towards those who had lost people in the war," Harris commented. "People talk about the verdict of history in politicians as if it is going to come in 20, 50 or 100 years' time but the verdict of history generally comes now. I think there is a sense that we have the verdict on this war and its legality."

Polanski, though, isn't a British parliamentary reporter or political correspondent. You're never quite sure how seriously to take the politics in the film. At times, the indignation of the film-makers at the ruthless, cynical behaviour of the politicians seems evident.

However, The Ghost is also a rip-roaring thriller with hints of John Buchan's The 39 Steps and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep about it. The film-makers don't seem sure whether they're preaching at us or trying to entertain us. The plot twists begin to multiply. Lang's ghostwriter's paranoia is likely to be shared by audiences as they try to work out which of the characters is to be trusted. Inevitably, the cheating extends to Lang's private life too.

What Polanski does capture very effectively, perhaps as a result of his own long experiences, is the fraught and complex relationship between the media and their prey. "The pack is on the move," we're told as the news crews and journalists descend on the remote US island where Lang is living in a huge modernist house. We even feel a certain sympathy for him when the helicopter appears at his front window and the photographers' long lenses are trained on him.

Brosnan captures the strange mix of unctuous charm, defiance and vulnerability that characterises the ex-prime minister. As the ghostwriter, Ewan McGregor again affects the Dick Van Dyke-like cockney accent he used in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream but he gives a far more effective performance here. He is the cheeky, quick-witted outsider, trying to cope as he is drawn into an ever more baffling and threatening world. The film has barely started when he is mugged and robbed.

There are plentiful echoes of Polanski's own earlier movies. As in his thrillers Frantic and Bitter Moon, there is a melodramatic quality – a desire to push beyond realist conventions. Certain sequences, notably the final one, are deliberately very stylised. There is the same queasy claustrophobia here that is found in a film like Cul de Sac. McGregor has some of that mix of arrogance and innocence that characterised Jake Gittes in Chinatown. The bleak, deadpan humour is recognisable too.

Now well into his seventies, Polanski doesn't have quite the energy to lift The Ghost beyond the realm of the conventional conspiracy thriller. In its lesser moments, the film is stagey and old-fashioned. The in-jokes about the publishing world are heavy handed. The plotting relies heavily on coincidence and on what Hitchcock used to call McGuffins: scraps of paper, photographs with telephone numbers written on the back.

The Ghost was made in Europe, at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin and on location. Its re-creation of the US never rings true. Even when the plotting creaks, though, we're aware of its director's inventiveness and intelligence.

Polanski supervised the final part of the editing of The Ghost after his arrest. The media obsession with him since then shows little sign of abating. That is one reason why there is such curiosity about his new film. However, for the movie's duration at least, audiences should be able to forget about the current notoriety of its director. Whatever his travails, Polanski is still capable of turning out a well-crafted and intelligent thriller with bite and irony.

The Ghost is released on 16 April

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders