Saturday, 24 April 2010

'The Ghost' review: The Man Who Wasn't Blair

‘The Ghost’ (or ‘The Ghost Writer’ as it’s known in many places – including the film’s own end credits) is the new “political” thriller directed by Roman Polanski and adapted from a Robert Harris novel of the same name. It stars Ewen McGregor as the titular ghost, as he is tasked with writing up the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan and obviously modelled on Tony Blair) after the previous ghost writer is discovered to have drowned. However, when McGregor’s character (never named) turns up to ghost the book, he finds that the death of his predecessor may not have been an accident.

Polanski clearly knows what he is doing and the material is in capable hands. The final shot is perfect (Polanski knows the perfect time to bring up the credits), as is the long tracking shot that precedes it in the film’s closing moments. Likewise, the patience and economy of the film’s opening sequence is a joy to behold, as the dead ghost writer's car is discovered abandoned on a ferry. But unfortunately, touches of cinematic brilliance from Polanski can not prevent ‘The Ghost’ from being (at best) a mediocre film.

In many ways it is as much a homage to Hitchcock and to B-pictures as Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ was earlier in the year. But the latter film’s twist was more satisfying and the atmosphere more foreboding. To say nothing of the fact that McGregor is no DiCaprio: the Scottish ‘Trainspotting’ star struggles with a London accent throughout the film and to make things worse his character is (we are told more than once) supposed to be funny. Indeed he has some comic lines here and there, but McGregor robs them all of the little comic power they might have had coming from a more capable actor. There isn’t a single laugh in the film as a result. Apart from the heavy-handed nature of the end reveal, which genuinely made me laugh out loud.

Olivia Williams steals the show as the PM’s wife, giving a great performance which elevates the material. Similarly, the dependable Tom Wilkinson shows up and does his reputation no harm at all. But Kim Cattrall (soon to be seen in ‘Sex in the City 2’) is worse than even McGregor as the PM’s secretary and Brosnan’s (widely-praised) performance as the PM never rises above being merely acceptable.

The screenplay is the single worst thing in ‘The Ghost’, with the dialogue always heavy-handed and often expositional. The film, as a B-Movie or a generic thriller, deals with politics in understandably broad brushstrokes. However, the great number of parallels between Brosnan’s Adam Lang and the demonised media picture of Tony Blair are unsettling. I’m all for a film which investigates Blair as a public persona and as a man, but this film plays to every cynical, well-worn, cliché about the former PM and is content to delve no further. There is even room for a political, conspiracy thriller set in Blair’s Britain, but ‘The Ghost’ is not the film that part of recent history deserves (or maybe even demands).

Perhaps ‘The Ghost’ will age quite well as audiences grow more distant from the recent political past. Then the Blair references will seem more obscure and may add colour to the picture in giving it an interesting historical context. But as a film for this political moment (the upcoming 2010 UK election) the film’s cynicism about politics and its practitioners is at best unhelpful and at worst irresponsible. Many will say that artists have no responsibility other than to their own creative whims and they would probably be correct. But I still find ‘The Ghost’ a little distasteful all the same.

However, ignoring the problems with the historical and political aspects of the film, ‘The Ghost’ is still a slickly made, but lightweight thriller. It has bad performances (with a couple of exceptions), a worse script and the most obvious, heavy-handed twist you’ll see this year. However, if you are curious to see what could turn out to be a great filmmaker’s last movie, then you can at least see some deft touches and some nice shots, for what it’s worth.

'The Ghost' is playing across the UK and can now be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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