To say Roman Polanski has suffered some bad press lately would be an understatement. The 76-year-old is detained in Switzerland, waiting to hear if he’ll be extradited to the United States to stand trial for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Love or hate his ‘justice-dodging’ ways, Polanski has undoubtedly made some fantastic films in his time. His latest piece, The Ghost (2010), is right up there with the best of them.
Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ political thriller casts Ewan McGregor as a hard-bitten, unnamed ghost writer who makes a living churning out showbiz memoirs. The hard-drinking, cynical McGregor is wary about his latest assignment: writing the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who is in a spot of bother thanks to his part in a torture scandal. However, the hefty fee offered wins him over and McGregor travels to Lang’s isolated island retreat in the US. There, he meets Lang’s formidable wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and Chief of Staff (Kim Cattrall).
The island hideout is atmospheric, with a constant storm whipping the marram grass and waves into a frenzy. It’s the perfect place to don a big coat and walk along the beach in the rain looking moody, which of course happens a good many times throughout the film.
McGregor quickly discovers that Lang’s last ghost writer drowned in suspicious circumstances, and also that his employer, who is facing possible extradition (sound familiar?), is not all that he seems. A little digging later and McGregor finds himself entangled in a global conspiracy.
Polanski has crafted a polished, slow-burning thriller; Hitchcockian from its stark cinematography to its nail-bitingly tense soundtrack. And in that typical Hitchcockian way, every character is imbued with a vague sense of menace, and every line is steeped with threatening undertones.
Olivia Williams is all ‘affronted high drama’ as the grim, cuckolded wife, while Brosnan’s ex-Prime Minister is a suitably pompous stuffed shirt. It’s not hard to spot a touch of Tony and Cherie in their relationship – particularly when Ruth, watching her husband on television, implores him, “Don’t grin, for God’s sake,” as he talks of torture and war.
Kim Cattrall’s performance has echoes of Mrs Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940); popping up around corners with a haughty look and a crisp, efficient outfit. McGregor’s is the standout performance, however, and he’s hugely enjoyable to watch as he stumbles through the twists and turns of this tightly wound, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Refreshingly short of shootouts, car chases and all those other Hollywood conventions, we’re left with hidden recording devices, cold-war style subterfuge, and good old fashioned amateur detective work by McGregor’s reluctant everyman. The acting and script are stilted at times, but The Ghost’s central tension and gloomy atmosphere smooth over any clunky bits, resulting in a sophisticated yet brilliantly simple thriller.