You have to wonder what drew Roman Polanski, a man exiled from America with the spectre of arrest hanging over him, to The Ghost, a film about a former Prime Minister seeking refuge in America while facing the prospect of a war crimes trial. Or, maybe not.
Based on Robert Harris’ 2007 novel, The Ghost can be read several ways: a fascinating mirror to its director’s life since his arrest late last year; a straight borrowing of Harris’ thinly-disguised account of Tony Blair since stepping down as Prime Minister with a fictional whodunnit spliced in; a Hitchcockian thriller to savour, and Polanski’s most overt homage to the Master since 1965’s Repulsion; or a chance to see James Belushi back on screen again with an alarmingly shaved head.
And in all those ways, The Ghost works terrifically well (although Belushi fans be warned – it’s just one, albeit very enjoyable, scene that showcases Jim’s magnificent bald dome). Set against Polanski’s erratic back catalogue – the triumphant majesty of Chinatown, the bloated and messy Pirates, the humdrum Frantic, the terrifying Rosemary’s Baby – it’s arguably his most purely enjoyable film since 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Not as outlandish, certainly, but it shares that film’s playfulness, which is as unexpected as it is welcome. In another director’s hands, Harris’ novel could have been a straight political, all work and no play. Polanski certainly doesn’t shy away from that. Indeed, he retains that at the film’s core so the film is propelled forward by a slowly gestating mystery.
Pierce Brosnan’s Blair proxy Adam Lang, holed up in a beach retreat in America, welcomes Ewan McGregor’s writer to turn his memoirs into a cohesive book after his previous ghost writer is found washed up on shore dead. Yet, as he conducts his interviews with Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), he begins to unravel how his predecessor met his untimely end, and the truth behind the smiling façade of the Blairs Langs.
Polanski has faith in a good story, which he has here, and he tells it well. It has a pleasing simplicity, and given room to breathe, it moves along at a pace that allows you to enjoy the details. And it’s in the details that The Ghost works best.
Polanski’s offbeat humour is scattered between the film’s more serious moments, making for an alternately funny, intriguing, dramatic, then back to funny again, experience.
It’s a subtle humour, derived not from slapstick or enforced situations but from the characters, all of whom are played nicely by the principal cast. Brosnan’s performance isn’t so much an impersonation of Blair as it is a reflection. He captures perfectly the air of a man still clinging to a feeling of importance and power (he stops at the stairs of an aeroplane to cast a noble wave to his audience below, even though it’s now just his wife and assistant rather than the crowd it used to be), and the difference between his public and private face (“Don’t do the grin,” his wife says watching him on TV).
Williams initially seems too young to be playing the wife, but hers is perhaps the trickiest role, going from meek to manipulative in the blink of an eye. Best of all is McGregor. His London accent doesn’t always ring true in the first half hour, but it’s his most relaxed and enjoyable performance since Trainspotting. Like the film, he does the little things so well: a flash of exhilaration across his face when he hears a news report on Lang’s reaction to war crime charges using his scripted words, quickly followed by revulsion that he’s now caught up in this political machine.
If the film gets a little bit silly in its denouement and teeters on the edge of implausibility just a tad too much after doing such a good job of being convincing and entertaining before, that’s easy to forgive.
The Ghost may not be the most flashy or exuberant film of the year, but it’s one of the better ones so far.
The Ghost opens in UK cinemas today.