A new film by the beleaguered director Roman Polanski was bound to be the talking point of the 60th Berlin Film Festival, which opened on Thursday. The Polish film-maker was unable to attend, as he is still under house arrest in Switzerland, pending decisions on possible extradition to the US. He exiled himself in 1977 after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. But another controversial figure has been drawing as much attention as Polanski, thanks to his thriller The Ghost, which premiered on Friday – and that is Tony Blair.
In the film, adapted by Robert Harris from his 2007 novel, Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter hired to help with the memoirs of a former British prime minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. Clearly modelled on Blair, Lang is a charismatic high-flier – and he's in deep trouble, on suspicion of handing terrorism suspects to the US for torture. Now he faces war crimes charges, after being denounced by his former foreign secretary (Robert Pugh, with a distinct touch of Robin Cook's facial bristle).
The Ghost – to be released in Britain on 19 March – could hardly be more timely, coming so soon after Blair's testimony to the Chilcot inquiry. Lang's words in the film, shot in Germany last year, uncannily chime with those spoken by Blair two weeks ago. "Whatever I did," says Lang, "I did because I believed it was right."
There are other Blair analogies too: Lang's Cambridge days, when he was less interested in politics than in amateur dramatics (rather than being a guitar hero). The young Lang is seen in a photo wearing a Blair-esque straw boater. He also has a wife, played by a scene-stealing Olivia Williams, who could be regarded as a Cherie Booth surrogate – although revelations about the Langs' personal life will either be regarded by the Blairs with great amusement, if they see the film, or fuel domestic ructions.
By a coincidence that Polanski surely can't have foreseen, there is also a strange parallel between Lang and the director's own situation. In the film, Lang is pursued by the media to his island retreat off Cape Cod; Polanski himself has recently been under press siege in his Gstaad chalet. Lang complains that he's now unable to leave the US, while Polanski has been unable to enter the US in decades.
Polanski's supporters, especially in France – where he has citizenship – have long claimed that, as a grand master of cinema, he should be forgiven past errors. The Ghost won't reaffirm his claim to world-class greatness: it's no masterpiece, but a hugely enjoyable, if somewhat functional, thriller with a touch of Hitchcockian suspense, considerable paciness and a mischief Polanski hasn't shown in years. At a press conference, Harris commented that Polanski wanted "to do another Chinatown-like movie where the plot gradually unfolds, and I think that, above all, was what drew him to it."
Meanwhile, thrillers – and secluded islands – seem generally to be doing well for A-list directors in Berlin, with Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island premiering yesterday.