The Ghost (15)

3.00

Spirited thriller the Roman way

Given its subject matter, wintry settings and the ill omens under which it was made, one might expect The Ghost to be dark and brooding fare. In fact, by comparison with some of Roman Polanski's earlier work, this well-executed thriller is almost a lark. There is nothing here to match the morbidity of his version of Macbeth, the claustrophobic intensity of films like Repulsion and Cul De Sac or the bristling sexual tension and undercurrent of violence that ran through Knife in the Water. Nor is there anything as grim as the parts of The Pianist showing the degradation of the Warsaw ghetto. It would be stretching it to call the new film a John Buchan-style ripping yarn or a Polanski version of a Raymond Chandler detective yarn, but this is Polanski enjoying himself.

It is presumably not coincidence that The Ghost is released in British cinemas in the middle of the current UK election campaign. The Robert Harris novel on which it is is based has a strong political undertow. Harris is the former admirer and confidant of Tony Blair. The more Harris has insisted that his fictional creation Adam Lang is not directly based on Blair, the more commentators have noticed the resemblance between Lang and Blair. Lang (played with oleaginous charm by Pierce Brosnan in the film) is a former British prime minister holed away on an island off the coast of the US, "writing" his memoirs and facing down war-crime charges.

The opprobrium Lang faces in his exile is also something Polanski will recognise. He has been languishing under house arrest in Switzerland for several months, facing extradition to the US, after being apprehended by police en route to the Zurich Film Festival last September.

The film takes its tone from its main character, the cocksure, wisecracking "ghost writer", played by Ewan McGregor. The Scottish actor approaches the role with a bravado and insolence that, at times, even rekindles memories of his role as Renton in Trainspotting. An opportunist with no interest in politics, the writer at first takes everything – murder, corruption, evidence of US Neocon skulduggery, the attentions of Lang's overbearing wife (Olivia Williams), even being mugged – in his stride. He is a contemporary variation on the genial everyman heroes in Hitchcock thrillers who suddenly find themselves entangled in monstrously sinister and complex plots. True to genre convention, he is both pursuer and pursued. He is certain that his predecessor was murdered. By trying to find out why, he makes himself the quarry.

Polanski orchestrates affairs with verve and humour. He is equally adept at cranking up the tension and at staging chases. Polanski is also able to convey what it feels like to be in the glare of the world's media. Adam Lang, the plot suggests, was behind the rendition of terrorist suspects then tortured by the CIA. He is a smug and complacent figure, as duplicitous in his private as in his political life. Even so, we feel sympathy for him. "The pack is on the move," we're told as the press close in on him.

Olivia Williams excels as Lang's wronged and strong-willed wife, Ruth. She is sharp-tongued, but it very quickly becomes apparent that she is using irony and sarcasm to mask her own vulnerability.

Just occasionally, The Ghost feels clunky – closer to the world of a glossy Jeffrey Archer TV mini-series than to that of Chinatown. There is something strangely artificial about Lang's island hideaway house with its its minimalist design and hidden offices presided over by Lang's PA (Kim Cattrall, as a rather matronly femme fatale). The early scenes showing the mercenary, narcissistic world of London publishing are heavy handed. As the plot twists multiply and the ghost writer's paranoia intensifies, the characterisation becomes strained. The nuanced interplay between the writer, Lang and Lang's wife slowly gives way, to be replaced by a far broader style of storytelling. The political edge is blunted, too. The debate about whether a western political leader should be held legally accountable for war crimes is downplayed as we move into the realm of a far more conventional conspiracy thriller.

Still, as in Polanski's earlier films Frantic and Bitter Moon, there is a sense that the Polish director is parodying thriller conventions. With that surrealist Eastern European sensibility, he was never likely simply to make a thriller by numbers. He relishes throwing in unexpectedly lyrical and oddball touches – the eerily beautiful shot of the pages of a manuscript blowing away down a London street, the strange cameo from a very ancient Eli Wallach as an eccentric who lives by the shore.

The Ghost was apparently made almost as an afterthought. Polanski and Harris had originally intended to collaborate on an adaptation of Harris's novel Pompeii. When that fell through because of a strike in Hollywood, they turned to the other novel instead. This is an old-fashioned thriller in that it doesn't use juddering, hand-held camerawork and pays as much attention to character as to action. The Ghost may seem conventional, but it has a disorienting, offbeat quality that makes it stick in the mind.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible