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The Ghost

The Ghost

In ‘Chinatown’, Roman Polanski’s cameo hoodlum waves a knife in front of Jack Nicholson and offers the following observation: ‘You know what happens to nosey parkers?’ This is just before Nicholson gets a flashing cut across his conk and hence the iconic white strap dominating his face thereafter. Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost should be so lucky.

McGregor’s particular snoop is an invited one: join the deposed former Prime Minister Adam Lang (two syllables/one syllable – keep on hinting!) in his American fort and be his ‘ghost’ – and finish his forthcoming memoir. Undeterred by the extremely suspect manner that the original amanuensis/interlocutor met a beach-bound demise, he signs on for a sizable fee and heads off into the largely unknown: what he does know is that the ex-PM is as unpopular as, say, Tony Blair during the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly nightmare. For example. And the parallels with Blair so thoroughly dominate the piece (and Harris’ source novel) that you take it as a given that here is a version of a take on Mr Tony.

What follows is a deterioration in said dwindling stock of our sequestered heavyweight as a torturing scandal threatens further ignominy and disrepute. Concurrently, McGregor finds the whole situation, and his morgue-fresh predecessor in particular, as a barely sentient child would, a bit fishy. He experiences strange encounters, makes alarming, slow-fed discoveries and prods his toe into murky waters. And the sharks, inevitably, show a bit of fin. The unannounced arrival at the inconspicuously grand retreat (a wonderfully oleaginous turn from the great Tom Wilkinson) of Harvard professor Paul Emmett, a former college alumnus of Lang, is a superbly sinister few minutes, the best of the film.

What Polanski does particularly well – better than anyone since Kubrick? – is to infuse the quiet moments of his films with poised menace. And The Ghost is at its best during such stretches: McGregor waiting in the airport lounge as Lang’s alleged misdemeanours play on the TV and lights in the dark night wink beyond; a brief meeting in a hotel bar; a bike ride in a miserable, desolate landscape.

Polanski always seems to place the camera in the exact spot from which you can get least purchase on the film. There’s a pervasive malevolence maintained throughout that, Kubrick parallels continuing, Polanski achieves through very stagey deliberation, evident in every scene (both directors being quite happy to run into three figures with takes) that broadens a sense of unheimlich, uncanniness. This factor tends to virtually extinguish any sense of real-time or vicarious indulgence: you are kept very much at a remove, passively engaged and unsettled, and his films inhabit a dreamlike torpor that provokes blank, elusive dread in even the most innocuous scenes.

The film is best considered a success as a snapshot of fairly impervious, inscrutably chameleon-esque characters. As a Blair portrait it’s fairly hopeless, as it doesn’t really delve into the inner-workings of the man: Brosnan as Lang, like Blair, just isn’t menacing or versatile enough to carry any sense of depth. He is engaging, of course, and believably magnetic. He also carries the suggestion of a man of no compunction: again, accurate. But ultimately not interesting enough as a fictional character.

Olivia Williams, as his brunt-bearing, grumpily resolute better-half, is as good as she’s ever been and then some. She’s truly brilliant. A worn, likable sense of loyal hardiness betrayed by ruthlessness, perfectly captured. And, without giving the game away, she has to be this good considering the dramatic weight she has to withstand.

Ewan McGregor is a strange choice for this. He’s a fine actor but his mockney is majestically un-negotiable. It ends up prompting thoughts of Jimmy White doing George Smiley. I know the role is that of a journeyman populist hack, but he seems a little miscast. Tom Hardy should be fronting the queue for stuff like this, surely.

The Ghost, then, is an enjoyable and impressive attempt at a thoughtful thriller and contains many good things, none of which add up to a great deal.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mary Gilbert
    October 28, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Yep – saw this one a few months back having read the novel one afternoon and thought it slight but entertaining. Chinatown is in my top ten if not top five films of all time.I’ve only got to hear that wonderfully seductive opening trumpet riff to want to watch it all over again. In my opinion though, Polanski has never equalled it before or since though he’s always a watchable director. I thought one of the best things about the book was the wintry setting in New England and although I think it was actually filmed in Jutland the film really did convey the atmosphere of a chill out of season east coast. Like you I thought Ewan Mcgregor wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he’s still a bit too cool and sexy? In the novel I had an image of someone a bit more down at heel and physically flabby. Pierce Brosnan wasn’t convincing – at the moment it’s getting hard not to imagine Michael Sheen though his Blair is too nicey nicey to fit into a thriller like this. But for me Brosnan just looks like a plastic action man and acts like one too.
    Olivia Williams and Tom Wilkinson were terrific as usual. In my recollection someone – a minster or someone significant – suddently appears on a rain swept ferry in the middle of the night . My husband and I turned to each other with that `oh come on ‘ look reserved for totally implausible plot twists.

  2. October 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    On Chinatown: me too! It just gets better. And it was already a masterpiece.

    I didn’t mention (perhaps I should, retrospectively) the location of the shoot, as it is, as you say, a great choice. It really does get the coastal off-season feel. All Polanski’s films, I suppose, feel off-season: you never feel THERE (no italics at my disposal!) in any frame.

    Yes, I think Brosnan debilitated the film to a degree. He hampered any sense of disquiet during key scenes: and add McGregor’s daft accent to the mix and you get a seriously dented sense of suspense. Even Michael Sheen has more menace about him, but you’d have his other Blair portrayals meddling with your take! I’d’ve gone with Hugh Grant!

    Polanski: it’s an enormous story, the early films, the life, the latter slide. But he’s still, as you say, a terribly interesting film-maker. His failures are far more intriguing than most supposed successes. The Pianist, which seems to invite sniffy respect nowadays, seemed to be a late masterpiece to me, in the way that, say, Spielberg or Scorsese, seem unable to have a hope of producing anything touching it.

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