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Non-Review Review: The Ghost

The Guardian once made a point that what distinguishes British writers from their American counterparts is that they simply refuse to ascribe to simplicity would could be blamed on malice:

The conspiracy theory has become an off-the-peg solution for ­writing about politics in ­Britain – to the detriment of writing, politics and Britain. If The Wire had been made here, its hero McNulty would have discovered that Baltimore’s problems were not the result of a shortsighted political culture, or the weakness of ­human ­nature, but were the fault of one property ­developer in a polo-neck.

It’s an astute observation, rendering The Ghost a very British reflection on the most turbulent legacy of a recent Prime Minister.

How will Lang keep his spirits up?

I read Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost. It was a rich, steaming indictment of the betrayal of a Labour supporter in the wake of Tony Blair’s departure from Downing Street. It was a rich, pulpy read which filtered a very clear frustration through a wonderfully trashy construct. After all, the novel’s central twist – upon which the whole exercise rests – is as ridiculous as it is brilliant. It’s clever in its own off-the-wall way, but doesn’t serve as a fitting conclusion to a thorough and entirely self-serious exploration of the legacy of a divisive political figure. The book managed to balance itself quite well, with wonderful prose seemingly aware of the clichés it was using, but smiling and even winking at the audience.

Instead, Polanski’s film adaptation plays its cards with po-faced seriousness. It’s All the President’s Men, just with a crazy central concept. Of course, history had provided the Watergate film with the justification for a cold and hard approach to the material – as ridiculous as the Nixon scandal might have seemed as fiction (and some of the moments veered uncomfortably into comedy), it was grounded in cold, hard fact. On the other hand, The Ghost (or The Ghost Writer to our American readers, which seems a rather insulting retitling – I’m fairly sure they would have got it) isn’t based in anything remotely approaching fact. It anchors itself on an idea which seems more at home in The Manchurian Candidate than The Special Relationship.

The Ghost is the story of a ghost writer assigned to draft the autobiography of fictional British Prime Minister Adrian Lang. Lang left office in a sea of controversy and – as the story unfolds – finds himself drawn up in potentially criminal charges from international legal bodies. We’re presented with the somewhat ironic image of the former British leader who is forced to retire to America, because anywhere else would possible extradite him for war crimes. He’s certainly an unpopular leader, responsible for two wars (Iraq is explicitly mentioned), and is presented as something of a charlatan. While Tony Blair, upon whom Lang is closely based in most aspects, was a guitarist in a rock band in college, Lang was an actor.

Into the Prime Minister's Bla-- errr, I mean Lair...

As the writer is asked to prepare the Prime Minister’s memoirs for print (filling in for the previous ghost writer who supposedly got drunk and fell off the ferry), he begins to notice things aren’t quite right in the politician’s inner circle. And, as he digs into the past, he discovers that not everything about his subject’s past adds up.

Polanski stages The Ghost as something of a melancholy autopsy of the British leader. However, the script – like the book – never really invests Lang with his own sense of character. As charming as Pierce Brosnan is in the role (and he is charming), he simply doesn’t have anything to work with. In staging the movie, Polanski evidently had to choose between a solemn character piece and a gripping conspiracy yarn. However, in opting for the former, he betrays the fact that his cast of characters are actually caricatures – Harris isn’t interested in making them sympathetic or well-rounded, but in using them as cyphers.

One can get a sense of the type of movie this could have been. There are shadowy figures on Lang’s empty, stormy holiday retreat island. The writer’s room is tossed at one point; he’s mugged at another. Nobody has clear motivations. However, once the movie allows the writer to move in with Lang and his family, it stops dead. It’s suddenly protected and even comfortable – despite the cold and sterile architecture and what is actually going on, Polanski never really turns the heat up on any of his characters. The soundtrack ominously hums and pangs, as if impatiently waiting for the kind of movie that it actually belongs to.

That said, Polanski is a wonderful director. He composes his shots with beauty. Unfortunately, there are only so many tracking shots of a deserted island I can take in a two-hour film. His cast is phenomenal. Ewan McGregor lends the movie what little charm it has in the lead, but his character is inexplicably two-dimensional – the writer is perhaps the only lead character not intended by Harris to be a pastiche of a figure he dislikes. We’re left with the weird positioning of an Irishman (Pierce Brosnan) as a British Prime Minister, an American (Kim Cantrell) as a British assistant, and a British man (Tom Wilkinson) as an American Professor. All do okay in their roles (although Cantrell wrestles a bit with the accent).

By the way, because I don’t get to say this nearly as often as I would like, how deadly is it to see Eli Wallach doing what he does even at his age? He cameos as a resident of the island, and is pretty great. There is a similar small role for Jim Belushi (who looks weird bald), but it’s phenomenal to see Wallach still lighting up the screen these days. But enough on that.

The Ghost is a fairly drab and dull two-hour movie which takes itself entirely too seriously. It is based around a gimmick, but treats it as though it is the holy grail. It feels somewhat anti-climactic to follow all that carefully classy build-up with a rather hokey finale – one feels that it would be a better movie if it embraced its pulpy nature earlier on. Hmm. Maybe that’s the irony of all this. There’s no life in the film.

2 Responses

  1. Who was Olivia Williams’ character supposed to represent, anyway? She came off as the most badass of the cast, frankly.

  2. The last shot is great but unfortunately one of the few truly memorable bits (and the last 10-15 mins really save the film). You’ve got to love the Broz in this too.

    I thought Polanski’s direction was the best part of this, simple and effective (harking back to Film Noir and his earlier thrillers). Unfortunately the story was pants.

    Good review!

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