The Ghost, Roman Polanski, 127 mins, (15)
City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan, 136 mins, (15)

Robert Harris's story of a former PM accused of war crimes is already losing its lustre of topicality

Although Roman Polanski's new thriller doesn't exactly crackle with up-to-the-minute urgency, it does have a certain gossipy timeliness – though perhaps not as much as it did in February, when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

Tony Blair – on whom one character might or might not be "based", if it please the court – had just appeared before the Chilcot inquiry on Iraq. And Polanski himself had recently been placed under house arrest in Switzerland, pending a decision on whether or not he'd return to the United States to face his long-standing legal issues. If the spectre of Polanski's 1970s sexual misdemeanours hadn't been hovering, I doubt The Ghost would have been quite such news: the attention it drew in Berlin is testimony to the PR value of a director not turning up to promote his own film.

For British audiences, there's a special curiosity value to The Ghost, which was jointly adapted by Robert Harris from his own novel. In this political mystery-à-clef, Ewan McGregor plays a journalist who signs on to polish the memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) after a previous ghost writer has met a mysterious end. McGregor flies to an island on America's East Coast, where he sits down to grapple with Lang's blandly indigestible slab of text. He must also grapple with the ego of the charismatic Lang – played by Brosnan not as a smiley Tony-clone, more as a raffish, volatile matinee idol. Meanwhile, controversy is hotting up over Lang's complicity with US renditions of suspected terrorists, and on the sidelines, Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) is bitterly grinding her teeth – which are altogether unlike Cherie Blair's – over her living conditions ("It's like living with Napoleon on St Helena").

The Ghost is a polished entertainment, with a modicum of racy edge and much ominous atmosphere, German locations standing in for the rain-soaked Eastern seaboard. Harris's plotting provides some taut Hitchcockian business: in the cleverest sequence, satnav gives McGregor the wherewithal to follow his predecessor's ghostly path. There are some juicy performances: among them Tom Wilkinson, that master of the cagily respectable; Kim Cattrall, crisply modelling a glassy English accent; the rarely-spotted veteran Eli Wallach; and, grabbing the film with both hands, a superb Olivia Williams, spiky and knowing.

Blair allusions notwithstanding, you'll spot certain parallels with Polanski's own situation. Facing the prospect of war crimes charges, Lang moans that he may never again be able to leave the US; Polanski has long been unable to set foot there. Lang is temporarily exiled in a luxury villa, but Polanski can't have anticipated himself languishing behind locked doors in Gstaad. So it goes.

Still, these anecdotal points of interest don't in themselves make The Ghost any more substantial. The film starts off drab and fusty – a scene featuring a tweedy old-school publisher suggests that Polanski isn't getting out much these days, but then I suppose he isn't. By and by it all warms up, in its chilly way, but the solution to the mystery has a terrible "who'd-have-thought-it?" disposability, especially since the reveal oddly recalls Hergé's The Secret of the Unicorn (then again, McGregor's character does rather come across as a Tintin-style boy detective).

The favoured French line on defending Polanski has been that the US authorities should cut him some slack, for he is, after all, un grand artiste. In fact, his work for the past three decades has largely been routine, at best academic. The Ghost is one of his more accomplished recent films, but to claim that Polanski deserves concessions because he's an above-par thriller director – well, perhaps that's a less compelling argument. Still, The Ghost is intelligent, reasonably engrossing fun, and would pass the time nicely if you watched it on a plane – between Switzerland and LA, say.

Sterner stuff comes from Chinese director Lu Chuan, whose City of Life and Death is a grimly imposing evocation of the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing. The same theme was explored from a European angle in the German film City of War: The Story of John Rabe, released two weeks ago, about the German official who helped shelter refugees. Lu Chuan's version, told from both Chinese and Japanese perspectives, has been a major success in China but has also got the director into deep trouble there. While painting a picture of horrific atrocities by the Japanese army, Lu tells his story partly from the point of view of a somewhat naïve Japanese sergeant (Hideo Nakaizumi). This alone has earned the director hostility, even death threats, from Chinese viewers who have objected to him humanising the invading force, but it undoubtedly gives this stark film a more nuanced dimension.

Several key figures emerge: among them, Rabe's secretary Tang (Fan Wei), foolishly confident of his family's safety; a young Chinese woman press-ganged into prostitution; and a doomed Kuomintang officer. Rabe is also prominent, but presented as ineffectual, ready to ship out when instructed by his Nazi masters. But Lu doesn't focus excessively on individuals: this is a cinema of crowds, showing how completely humanity and compassion are trampled in the movement of masses. An especially nightmarish sequence shows various styles of summary execution: different groups dispatched by bayonets, grenades, being buried alive or forced into the sea.

The film is precise in its recreation of time and place, but the severe sweep of the black-and-white photography also suggests an abstracted essence of war's horror. Unashamedly harrowing, the film doesn't need its occasional splashes of poignant orchestration to underline the emotion. Overall, this is a strikingly unsentimental and unglamorous production that looks and feels quite different from the grand-scale Chinese historical drama we're used to: a sobering reinvention of the modern war epic.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney plays Unhappy Families, watching Greek film Dogtooth plus the latest from US suburban satirist Todd Solondz

Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
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.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral