The Ghost (15)


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

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before