Depending on your point of view, either recent history hasnt been very kind to Roman Polanski or hes finally been paying for his 1977 misdemeanour. Im not going to get mired in the legal/moral perspectives on his behaviour but it does seem a little unfortunate that his Swiss incarceration has managed to collide with probably his best film of the last 15 years. Based on the novel by Robert Harris, 'The Ghost' (US title: The Ghost Writer) tells the tale of the titular writer (Ewan McGregor) who is hired against his own reservations, but with the paycheck induced encouragement of his literary agent, to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Of course things are never that straightforward as the Ghost soon learns that hes the replacement for the mysteriously dead long-term aide to Lang, found washed up on a lonely beach at Marthas Vineyard on the US eastern seaboard, and not a huge distance away from the modern and austere coastal mansion where Lang, his wife (Olivia Williams), and secretary (Kim Cattrall) have holed up. Things take an even more troublesome turn when a former cabinet minister tells the world at large that Lang was complicit in the transfer of terrorist suspects to the CIA, and their inevitable torture. As 'The Ghost' tries to keep a level head and an eye on his US publishers even more truncated deadline he finds more and more clues, and secretive oddness, to suggest that Langs protestations of innocence are as deceptive as ghost writing itself, and that everything comes back to the manuscript the aide left, unfinished. The screenplay was a collaboration between Harris and Polanski, a go-to project after the failure of Harriss novel Imperium to get off the ground, and a story that seems tailor-made for Polanskis darkly amused view of deception and self-preservation. And you can tell its Polanski in the directors chair from the off, not in a wholly obvious visual way like a Scorsese tracking shot, but simply by the mischievous intelligence. Of course thats not to say it doesnt have a visual key and beauty of its own, as Polanski seems to have rediscovered his menace under the lead-coloured and brooding sky that covers most of the scenery, the ominous and sinuous seas, the dark and inky palettes whether day or night, and occasional turns into the almost monochrome. Added to the use of angled shots and framing of the actors it all contributes to a master-class in the elevation of well-written pulp to high-grade entertainment. The simple contrast between the ordered calm one side of the mansions ridiculously cinematic window, and the wind-blown travails of the groundskeeper outside sums up the schism between the simple job of putting pen to paper, and the maelstrom happening around the Ghosts apparently slippery subject. As the never named centre to the story McGregor has also rediscovered the unforced charm that seems to have been awol for the past few years, ever since he shoe-horned himself into a stilted and monotonous young Obi-wan. He manages to convey world-weariness (witness him turning to the last page of the manuscript first), and a bewildered innocence in the face of events far larger than himself with deceptive ease. In fact there isnt a casting/performance mis-step in the whole affair, from Brosnans perfect mix of Blairish brio and his own rugged confidence to Olivia Williams tightly wound wife of the embattled Lang. Even the easily recognisable supporting players, however brief, are pitched at nothing less than memorable; standouts including the shaven headed John Belushi, Kim Cattrals loyal aide, and a welcome turn from the creakingly charismatic Eli Wallach. Under Polanskis watchful eye even the films score is a character, the composer Alexandre Desplat channelling Hitchcocks partner in crime, the great Bernard Hermann, revelling in a staccato, and playful urgency. Nothing in The Ghost is left to chance, and its nigh on irresistible, even as the twists and turns start to become easier to read. The enjoyment of watching a film under the control of a true director bypasses any reservations of source material snobbery and the thinly veiled re-plotting of a Blair-a-likes comeuppance, blended with a transatlantic twist on John Le Carrès familiar (and superior) themes. But its political thrills are really just the scaffolding around a supremely controlled thriller of human action and inaction, public faces and private deception. Perhaps part of the reason why Polanski has rung such fun out of The Ghost is a resigned recognition of its simple, central idea. As he re-lives the mis-steps of his own past the idea of hiring a re-write must have seemed an enticing proposition.
Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.