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The Ghost Review

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by Casimir Harlow Aug 24, 2010

    The Ghost Review
    I heard a rumour about Tony Blair's current annual salary. Something approximating £10 Million per annum. That's pretty good going for an arguably somewhat disgraced former PM who, some would argue, should have faced charges of war crimes. I mean, sure, it's not like anybody actually expected him to be formally charged with anything - or face any kind of real punishment - but it seems like he has positively profited from the whole thing. There's something not quite right about that. It could be argued that Roman Polanski - recently in the press because the authorities, once again, tried to get him for the alleged statutory rape of a 13-year old, that was committed several decades ago - could be accused of the same undeserved success. Every movie made since that notorious post-Chinatown 'event' is somewhat tainted by the bitter truth of what the fugitive Director has done. And it is somewhat ironic that his latest work, The Ghost Writer (also known as simply The Ghost) takes a pointed look at the dark secrets of a 'fictitious' former PM. It may be a case of 'pot calling the kettle...' but it makes for an interesting production nonetheless.
    When the ghost writer of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang dies in mysterious circumstances, a new 'ghost' is quickly drafted in, and sent to the island on which the politician is staying. Pretty soon he realises that there is quite a lot going on behind the scenes, and when Lang comes under fire for alleged war crimes, his 'ghost' realises that his own life may be on the line - as the manuscript that he is working on may hold secrets that nobody was ever supposed to find out.
    Some would say The Ghost Writer is classic Polanski, returning him to his early days where he was a master auteur capable of haunting suspense pieces: from Knife in the Water through to his peak, Chinatown. I would certainly agree that it was a good idea for him to return to the mystery thriller genre, as the broader strokes that he paints here do hark back to his classic days. He simmers his way through a fairly hefty runtime, almost effortlessly establishing doubts, clues and suspects within the audience's mind, whilst crafting a thriller that is both politically contemporary and cerebrally intricate.
    It helps no end that he works with material that someone else has written - the solid founding substance of Robert 'Fatherland' Harris's book, The Ghost (the film's original title). Harris was a former BBC news reporter and political columnist, who apparently also knew Tony Blair personally, and who retracted his support after the invasion of Iraq, and subsequently went on to write and publish this book just months after Blair resigned. The allusions are clear: Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And the references are there too: the 'war on terror', the invasion of Iraq, rendition of suspects for torture - which includes water-boarding - disputes between the PM and the Foreign Secretary, overly intimate ties between the UK and the US... the list goes on. But, when all is said and done, the movie does not really resonate after the end credits roll. It does not have anything to say that we didn't already know, and the convoluted conspiratorial spider's web that it weaves may have a reasonably satisfactory surprise final twist (even if the closing denouement was slightly unnecessary) but the whole thing still feels like it lacks any real significance. And, for a thriller with so many contemporary real-world allusions, that's just plain disappointing.
    The acting is top-notch, but let's get one thing straight. This is a Ewan Macgregor movie. It has a veritable list of 'where have they been?' actors in it, but they are all cameos. And that includes Brosnan, who is touted as a co-star: sharing the cover art and poster with Macgregor, and prevalent throughout the trailer. Those who have come here expecting Pierce Brosnan (as Lang/Blair) to share the screen for some electrifying confrontational moments, both under fire from the press, authorities and other politicians, or even when interviewed by the 'ghost' himself, will be sorely disappointed. He's in it for about 15 minutes, and basically has about 2 significant scenes. No, this is Macgregor's movie, Brosnan's just a glorified cameo.
    Thankfully Ewan Macgregor has finally managed to jettison the baggage of playing Obi-wan in Lucas' shallow Star Wars prequels. He is a better calibre actor than such limited material could ever provide for, as is evident here, where he makes the anonymous ghost writer a thoroughly likeable, reasonably smart and often quite witty protagonist. Without his solid central performance, the slow-burning narrative would not have held together, and viewers would have become bored long before the twist-laden final act.
    All of the other actors do well to support him too, with Brosnan pulling off a convincing turn as a proud former PM under siege for crimes that he may or may not have committed. He delivers his lines perfectly, and it really is a shame that he doesn't get enough time in this movie to become a character in his own right. Instead, he's just another one-dimensional Blair impersonator, a figurehead who epitomises all that we already know about our own former PM, rather than a personality that Brosnan has had the chance to make the character his own.
    Olivia Williams (who was recently in the ill-fated Joss Whedon Dollhouse TV series) has far more time to develop her take on Cherie Blair, crafting her own character into a mysterious figure - at once strong yet also vulnerable, a loving wife but a beleaguered one as well, a sultry seductress yet also a cold ice-maiden. Williams excels in a role that is second only to Macgregor's in terms of character significance.
    And Polanski peppers the movie with familiar faces who you just haven't seen on the Big Screen for years. Jim 'Red Heat' Belushi, Timothy Hutton (currently on TV doing Leverage), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly's Eli Wallach (I didn't even know he was still alive!) all offer up solid cameos - some of the best work they've done for a long time. That's alongside all the more familiar bit-part actors like Robin Hood's Robert Pugh (as the Foreign Secretary), the ever-reliable Tom Wilkinson and Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall (possibly giving us her best ever performance, and finally letting go of that sex kitten pigeon-hole that she had become too old for a long time ago). They all play important roles in enriching the movie.
    For a guy who was constrained by not being able to return to the US, and restricted to doing most of his post-production work from prison, Polanski certainly has shown that he can still pull off decent suspense. He is a good director, even if he is still tainted, and his craftsmanship is evident throughout. The filming locations chosen, however, do not fare as well - Germany making for a poor substitute for State-side settings. Despite plenty of attention-to-detail, it just looks unmistakably European. And the US release (both theatrical and on home formats) is shamefully censored for its PG-13 rating: two clearly noticeable swear-words awfully - and amateurishly - over-dubbed with the outdated Brit substitutes 'sod ' and 'bugger.' You can see exactly what Brosnan is saying - and, if this were a European copy (or an 'Unrated' US version) this irritating niggle would not have to be endured, repeatedly. Still, despite these complaints about the final product, Polanski has done a remarkable job for a 'wanted man'.
    Ultimately though, The Ghost Writer still rises and falls on the strength of its writing, which makes for a largely engaging mystery tale but will nevertheless be easily forgotten after you've popped out the disc. It just does not quite make for the rich and rewarding tale that you would have expected from such politically-infused subject-matter. It's all very 'meh' and, beyond the thriller story arc - which is rounded up in fairly familiar Hollywood fashion - there really is nothing substantial to hold onto. The sporadic thrills, the occasional tense moment, when the fury dies down, it all signifies nothing. Perhaps without such heavy political allusions the movie may have fared better, establishing its worth in its own right. But, as it is, this is a solid, suspenseful mystery thriller that just lacks any real punch. Rental material.