Roman Polanski “à Clef”

The Ghost Writer is his most purely enjoyable picture for years, a Hitchcockian nightmare brought off with confidence and dash

Roman Polanski on location in Germany on the set of the movie | Photo:

Roman Polanski’s latest film just happens to be about a public figure, once hugely admired, now disgraced, fearing extradition and prosecution and confined to virtual house arrest in a vacation spot for rich people.

So is The Ghostwriter autographical? Did the director, when he shot this film, get a chill presentiment of how personal it was all going to look? Maybe. But it didn’t stop him making a gripping conspiracy thriller and scabrous political satire, a Manchurian Candidate for the 2010s, as addictive and outrageous as the Robert Harris bestseller on which it’s based. Polanski keeps the narrative engine turning over with a downbeat but compelling throb.

This is Polanski’s most purely enjoyable picture for years, a Hitchcockian nightmare with a persistent, stomach-turning sense of disquiet, brought off with confidence and dash.

For a start, the casting works, with leads Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, actors from whom Polanski gets the best out of by keeping them under control. McGregor is the journo, never named: cynical, boozy and miserable in the classical manner. He makes a living ghostwriting the autobiographies of raddled showbiz veterans. In the current publishing scene, his business is booming, but even he is astonished to be offered the job of ghostwriting the memoirs of the former British prime minister Adam Lang, now living with his formidable wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) in his American publisher’s palatial beachfront home. A possible war-crime prosecution for assisting the rendition of terror suspects means Lang may never be able to leave American soil. And his last ghostwriter has been found drowned – an awful fate that resonates, sickeningly, with TV images of water-boarding. Could it be that the dead man discovered something dangerous about the ex-PM and his super-powerful, super-rich American friends?

Resemblances to Tony and Cherie Blair are very far from coincidental: Harris and Polanski seem to have calculated that a libel lawsuit would make for an uproarious day in court, precisely the sort of legal appearance that Mr. Blair does not care to make, in fact or fiction. This consideration adds a kind of meta-pleasure to the narrative.

Brosnan’s Lang is an alpha-ego, accustomed to American mega-celebrity status, smugly nurturing his Blair-ish sense of entitlement and resentment. Yet there is a weird blankness and forced-smile that resurfaces continually: a Brit tendency to ingratiation that he can never quite conquer. As with Harris’s novel, part of the enjoyment is gleefully imagining Tony and Cherie, in the parts of Adam and Ruth, pacing around like characters in some reality TV-show-from-hell. Polanski has a terrific scene in which McGregor drives the dead man’s car and the “sat-nav” satellite navigation system “remembers” his previous journey and guides him, spector-like, to a vital clue. The film incidentally gives us the ghost of the late Robin Cook, fictionalized as ex-foreign secretary “Richard Rycart”.

The Ghost Writer may not be a masterpiece, but in its lowering gloom (it rains almost continually) the film has some of the malign atmosphere of Polanski’s glory days of Chinatown or Death and the Maiden.  And there’s a wonderful final image of the windblown London street – faintly hyper-real in the manner of Hitchcock’s Frenzy – where something horrible has happened behind the camera. This very involving movie shows Polanski is far from finished as a film-maker.

So can it be true? A film adaptation of a book which doesn’t completely bowdlerize it’s source material? But, in The Ghostwriter, Polanski pulls it off. Perhaps because Polanski co-wrote the script with the book’s author, Robert Harris, so there is none of the usual dumbing down associated with many film adaptations. It’s tense political thriller that sticks very closely to the novel, only inserting some heightened drama at certain points to pay homage to the medium.

The performances are consistently strong: McGregor is excellent as the bumbling hero, unaware of what he’s stumbled into (a trademark of British political thrillers) and Brosnan does a good impression of an over the hill politician, angry and unrepentant. He even gets the Blair-like mannerisms down to a tee. The film even has humor- the morning after scene between McGregor and another character raised laughs, as does the scene where the characters are being filmed by a news helicopter and see themselves on the television. The film also carries over the book’s dry wit: the previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances, McGregor’s character is told in his job interview. “He was irreplaceable, absolutely irreplaceable,” says Brosnan’s Adam Lang, “But of course, he’ll have to be replaced.”

Over all, the sense of disquiet dominates the film, taking us 20 minutes into the future, where constant bomb scares have made everyone twitchy and security-conscious. Bodyguards and security forces are everywhere, watching everything and everyone with blank faces. The location helps too – most of the film takes place in the Adam Lang’s retreat on Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod, Massachusetts so there are plenty of rain swept beaches to look melancholic and mysterious on. [This was actually filmed in Germany on the Island of Sylt in the North Sea, as Polanski’s legal difficulties made him unable to film in either the U.S. or Britain.] And, unlike many adaptations, the house where most of the action takes place is lifted directly from the book. Adam Lang’s retreat is a bizarre 60s Modernist monstrosity, all echoing empty corridors and Bond style metal shutters. None of the characters seem to feel at ease there and, when the press descends on Lang, the sense of claustrophobia and paranoia in the house gets ratcheted up two bars.

Any criticism? The music is sometimes and bit too plinky-plonky; in places it almost ruins the atmosphere, but not quite. This probably won’t go down as one of Polanski’s all time masterpieces, but as a sharp and intelligent political thriller, it’s definitely worth going to see. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

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