Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review - The Ghost

The Ghost is being sold as a thriller, which is likely to cause a sense of disappointment in many viewers. That's not to say the film isn't good – far from it – but it doesn't fit with the contemporary perception of what a thriller should be. There are no shootouts, punch-ups or explosions, there's only one car chase (in which no destruction is caused), and the film moves at a steady, patient pace. The latest Jason Bourne film this is not. The pleasure we get from watching The Ghost is the pleasure of knowing that we are in safe hands throughout. From the unsettling opening image to the brilliant closing shot, this is the work of a man who knows exactly how to direct a great thriller.

That man is Roman Polanski, and The Ghost is one of the most accomplished and purely entertaining films he has made in the past twenty years. An adaptation of the novel by Robert Harris – who shares a screenplay credit with Polanski – The Ghost is the story of a controversial ex-Prime Minister (an outstanding Pierce Brosnan) whose forthcoming memoirs contain information that some are willing to kill for. One man has already died in the process, the former ghostwriter, whose body was found on a beach having "accidentally" fallen from a ferry, and the publishers are on the hunt for a replacement. The man they eventually settle on is never named in the film. He is simply referred to as The Ghost, and he is played by Ewan McGregor, whose slightly naïve charm is perfectly suited to the role. McGregor's character is a hack writer who admits to no interest in politics, but the publishers bring him on board because he claims he'll be able to bring a sense of heart to Adam Lang's story.

It's a major and lucrative break for The Ghost, but he has no idea what he is getting himself into. Lang is currently residing on a reclusive island retreat off the American East Coast, where he can hide away from both the press and the protestors who accuse him of war crimes and insist he faces justice at The Hague. Fearing the consequences if he returns to Europe, Lang is sheltering under the protective wing of Washington, and perhaps the depiction of a life being lived in exile was what attracted Polanski to the project. His depiction of such a life is certainly bleak; the Langs' current residence is like a prison, with its imposing brick walls on the inside and a constantly grey, wintry pall hanging over it on the outside, and Polanski uses this setting to create an air of constant menace and unease. The director's control of this material is absolute. His mise-en-scène is always precise and artful, and The Ghost allows him to stage a series of set-pieces that are pulled off with consummate aplomb. The act of retracing a dead man's journey through his pre-programmed sat-nav is a pleasingly idiosyncratic touch, while the climactic revelation – in which a note passes across the screen leading to a beautiful reaction shot – is masterfully handled.

Directorial touches like this help to raise The Ghost far above the generic origins of its screenplay. The film's plotting occasionally suffers from the clanging obviousness that plagues novels like this – one character's secret CIA affiliation is uncovered by a quick Google search, and I sometimes wondered if burying a coded message in a manuscript was such a smart course of action – but the handling of the drama is smooth enough to forgive such awkward spots. The Ghost is also surprisingly funny, shot through with a dry wit and a number of perfectly played comic moments. With odd asides like a gardener's attempts to rake leaves on a windy day or a strangely attired hotel clerk, Polanski brings a pleasingly off-kilter sense of humour to the film, and the script has a series of terrific lines. "He can't drown two writers. You're not kittens!" was a personal favourite that made me laugh out loud, but I also liked the response Lang's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) gives when McGregor's Ghost asks her if she ever wanted to be a proper politician; "Of course" she retorts sharply, "Didn't you ever want to be a proper writer?"

The brilliance of the ensemble acting here is perhaps Polanski's finest achievement with The Ghost. When she's on screen, Olivia Williams acts everyone else off it, giving a dryly caustic but occasionally vulnerable turn as the long-suffering wife. Everyone is terrific, though, with Brosnan giving arguably his best performance as Lang, and the fun that the actors appear to be having with their roles is matched by the fun I was having watching them. With each scene, Polanski ratchets up the pleasure a little more, to the point where The Ghost becomes one of the year's most satisfying pieces of filmmaking. Given his current situation, this may be the last Roman Polanski film we will ever see, and that's a shame, because whatever you think about this strange and fascinating man, it's impossible to deny that he is still a master filmmaker.