The latest film from legally troubled Polish directing legend Roman Polanski, The Ghost arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray today. Sensibly retitled as The Ghost Writer in the US to avoid disappointing horror fans, this is a bleak political thriller adapted from British author Robert Harris’ novel, placing a Blair-esque Prime Minister into a Hitchcockian world of deceit and suspense, with the ghost writer of his memoirs embroiled as a Hitchcockian “wrong man”. You only wish there were more Hitchcockian aspects to it.
Ewan McGregor leads as the unnamed ghost to Pierce Brosnan’s charismatic former Prime Minister Adam Lang. The writer is more used to glossy celebrity autobiographies than weighty political memoirs, and hopes to bring some spark to the book. He needn’t have worried, for all, as is so often the case in political thrillers, is not what it seems: the original ghost writer died in mysterious circumstances, Lang is accused of war crimes mid-writing, and some nefarious dealings with .
Polanski’s last film, 2005’s Oliver Twist, was an odd choice, a movie you’d lazily watch on a Sunday afternoon with your family, and so it’s refreshing to see him back on ground he was once celebrated for. In actuality, all the director gives you is a tantalising glimpse of what could have been – a hard-nosed, gripping human drama – without ever fully realising it.
The Ghost never quite hits the mark, and a DVD interview with Robert Harris perhaps explains it: his source novel is deliberately stark, dramatically speaking, unfolding almost like a stage play, saving any major drama for the final, genuinely thrilling act. It’s a tactic which is cinematically ill-advised. Unusually, the end of this film is better than the beginning, and the superb final conclusion – which differs from the book – was an idea Polanski dreamt up on set, a glimmer of his genius to end on.
But that still leaves us with an initial hour and a half of screen time which does little to thrill and much to bore. The material or cast is generally never strong enough to maintain a durable interest. A conspiratorial storyline is par for the political thriller course, and the allusions to the real life political counterparts do little to assuage any concerns that the twists and turns are a little absurd. (Spot the direct quote of Blair by Brosnan’s Lang when he grumbles, “I did what I thought was right!”)
And the acting is rarely impressive. McGregor, an actor whose career has been marred by many poor choices, is on better form than his usual but still sometimes feels wooden. And McGregor, Brosnan and Kim Cattrall effect some distractingly dodgy English accents throughout. Brosnan uses his same Americanised Irish he employed as Bond, slipping into a bizarre Churchill impression when talking to the media.
It’s Polanski’s best in years, yes, but still miles away from his best film, and still heavily overshadowed by the worrying allegations which swirl him and the number of filmmakers who, once influenced by him, have now overtaken him. Only occasionally, such as the masterful final shot as the pages of a manuscript flurry down a London street, do we get an inkling of the filmmaker there once was.