1 May 2010 | Chris_Docker
Old-fashioned noir, beautifully crafted for modern audiences
The Ghost is the story of a ghost writer who wins an assignment to tidy up the memoirs of a recently ex British Prime Minister to turn them into a best seller. It's set in the United States, and revolves around unproven accusations of allowing suspected terrorists to be extradited and tortured. The previous ghost writer has been found dead.
I found this a tense thriller with the added attraction of that pointed economy of execution for which Europeanised Hollywood (of which Polanski must be one of the leading exponents) is famed. As was often the case with Hitchcock, the story, camera framing, and a sense of mounting anticipation, produce more suspense than any amount of car chases, expensive stunts, intrusive music or grandstanding of stars.
Polanski's choice of stars is interesting, particularly as the two lead parts Pierce Brosnan (as former Prime Minister, Adam Lang) and Ewan McGregor (as the ghost) are known more for their 'star-appeal' performances than any detailed character acting. Yet they are perfectly cast, both for their on screen personas and for the space given them to develop. When Brosnan comes alive in sudden fits of rage (almost recalling Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon) we become more aware of his considerable strength as an actor, allowing the character – deliberately something of a stereotype – to shine through. The ploy is somewhat less successful though with Kim Cattrall, who seems forever in her Sex and the City persona. or Tom Wilkinson, who sadly seems to have just been wheeled in just to read lines from a supporting role. A less recognisable face in the formidable array of stars is Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs in An Education, and also making a return in the new series of Dollhouse). So when Williams, as Lang's wife Ruth, shows unexpected fire and passion we are taken by surprise – without any of the voyeuristic appeal of watching Ewan McGregor bare his bottom – as he, or his double, does quite readily.
The Ghost can be watched on two levels. Firstly it can be enjoyed as a straightforward thriller of a traditional sort. Aimed at modern audiences, it has plenty of sudden shocks but less twists and turns than, say, Chinatown. Even the ending has been simplified from the original script, which would have given a further meaning to the title and the whole film: but at the risk of being perhaps a little too clever.
But for those who want to draw unsettling comparisons, there is a fairly heavy-handed likeness to accusations about Tony Blair's complicity in what have been termed war crimes. And as Adam Lang, ensconced on an island off the east coast of America, far from the reach of the International Court of Justice (to which America does not subscribe), is pulled deeper into the plot of conspiracy theorists, another reading is easy to find: Polanski's own isolation for alleged crimes committed many years ago. For those that want to follow such parallels, there is a US Secretary of State that looks worrying like Condoleezza Rice. And when Lang refuses an invitation to go to London for fear of arrest, it might possibly recall Polanski's comment, "The last time I went to a festival to get a prize I ended up in jail." The Ghost is a beautifully 'hand-crafted' film, almost belonging to the age of noir, when characters were shadows and revelations exposed with dramatic force rather than loud bangs. Perhaps not as flashy as masterpieces such as Chinatown or Rosemary's Baby, The Ghost is still a welcome addition of quality and sleek design when the market for such dramas is swamped with bad stories and cluttered execution.