Movies: The Ghost * * *
Roman Polanski was putting the finishing touches to this film in post-production when -- unwisely, as it turned out -- he accepted an invitation to travel to Switzerland to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Zurich Film Festival.
The rest you know, and as he awaits the outcome of a legal wrangle involving his possible extradition to America over that little spot of bother with a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson's house in 1977, his latest film has emerged without him.
In The Ghost, which is based on a 2007 novel by Robert Harris, the 76-year-old Pole displays all the skill, craft, attention to detail and visual ingenuity that made him famous in the first place. And in the end the film's real and only limitation is its source material. Harris, a former Tony Blair groupie and campaign contributor, was horrified like many another fan by Blair's Faustian pact with the Bush administration and enthusiastic involvement in the invasion of Iraq.
The Ghost was his payback, an angry and impassioned thriller in which a writer hired to ghost a political biography finds ghastly secrets in an oily former prime minister's past. In the film version, the biographer is Ewan McGregor, a sometime journalist and hack writer whose name we never discover, who is called to his agent's office at the start of Polanski's movie to hear a very unusual offer.
Controversial former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) has been working on the memoirs he hopes will vindicate his choices with the help of a ghost-writing aide. But that aide died in tragic circumstances, apparently throwing himself off the ferry while returning to Lang's US island retreat, and so a replacement is urgently needed.
Our protagonist doesn't like the sound of all this one little bit, but his natural curiosity -- combined with the huge fee on offer -- gets the best of him, and he agrees. When he travels under cover of darkness to a bleak, deserted, wintry island which can only be reached by the ferry that claimed his predecessor's life, the writer finds Adam Lang living in unsettling domestic circumstances at a bleakly furnished modern beachfront house.
Lang himself seems full of beans about his forthcoming book, but his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) seems less thrilled about the writer's presence, and not very happy about anything else either. The journalist soon figures out that Lang is having a relationship with his personal assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall), and that his wife is well aware of it. To this tense atmosphere is added a public accusation by a former colleague of Lang's called Rycart (Robert Pugh) that the prime minister had colluded in the handing over of British citizens to the CIA for torturing.
Things are tense and about to get worse, because when Lang leaves for Washington with Amelia, the writer begins to get dangerously close to Mrs Lang. His perusal of his predecessor's notes have also led him to doubt the verdict of suicide, and then Rycart contacts him directly with some devastating allegations.
The plot is the stuff of your bog standard conspiracy thriller, and unfortunately neither Harris nor Polanski have done a particularly good job of fleshing out the characters, so that only the writer and the PM's wife ever approach anything like three dimensions. And despite Pierce Brosnan's best efforts, the politician remains a mere cypher.
What the film does do well, though, is invest a slender storyline with a wonderfully chilling and unsettling atmosphere, and there's an eerie beauty to the way Polanski follows his hero's peregrinations around that desolate island. The scenes there are the best, and the film falters whenever it abandons its main setting, especially in an over-dramatic ending that seems entirely at odds with the overall tone.
But there's plenty to admire in Polanski's spare, stylish direction, and Ewan McGregor is really good as the central character, whose search for the truth seems to take on almost existential proportions as the film unfolds.