Every so often, a film’s release is overshadowed by the news of certain production problems, whether it’s the death of Heath Ledger halfway through filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or the furious ranting of Christian Bale recorded on the set of Terminator Salvation. Yet events overshadowing The Ghost are surely unique: as you read this, director Roman Polanski is awaiting extradition to the US on charges of having unlawful sex with a 13 year old in 1977. Legions of Hollywood legends have signed a petition for his release, arguing, amongst other things, that Polanski’s artistic skills should not waste away with him in jail. However, since his retrial seems at this point inevitable, The Ghost may be the final film of Roman Polanski. What a shame, then, that this is not quite the fitting epitaph to his legendary career.
Based on the 2007 Robert Harris novel of the same name, The Ghost is a knowingly absurd political conspiracy thriller, wherein a third-rate ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) is drafted in at the last minute to help British ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) finish his memoirs, with his predecessor having died under unusual circumstances. Soon, Lang is facing a trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the ICC, having been accused of aiding the illegal water-boarding of terrorist suspects. The parallels with a certain orange-tanned Middle East Peace Envoy aren’t exactly subtle. However, the film knows exactly what its limitations are, and thankfully makes no attempt at clumsy moralising. Instead, Polanski sits back and lets the grand conspiracy gradually reveal itself over a leisurely two hours.
The performances are fairly strong, with McGregor making a likeable and interesting lead (despite a bloody awful cock-er-ney accent, guv’nor) and Brosnan flashing a winning smile often enough for the cracks in Lang’s persona to shine through. Yet the real standout is Olivia Williams as Lang’s wife, a performance that skilfully balances a biting intelligence with intense emotional vulnerability. Backing all this up is an interesting and unsettling score from Alexandre Desplat that holds the attention when the script occasionally cannot.
Most importantly, Polanski’s direction is assured, drawing tension out of every scene and creating an effective atmosphere of intrigue. Indeed, in their reactions to The Ghost, critics have repeatedly compared him to Hitchcock, a plaudit that seems somewhat generous; this has none of the stylish audacity or sheer balls that Martin Scorsese’s direction of Shutter Island displayed. Instead, Polanski directs in an inoffensive manner, refusing to show off in the manner of Scorsese. Perhaps he felt less need, having rightly beaten him to Best Director at the 2003 Oscars with The Pianist. Indeed, it’s a shame that Polanski’s heartfelt and deeply personal portrait of one man’s survival of the Holocaust wasn’t his last film, as it offers far more insight into the mind of the troubled director than this workaday thriller. Many have pointed to the similarities between Lang and Polanski, both men awaiting trial in a foreign country for crimes that many regard as morally ambiguous, yet there is never a sense of Polanski’s personal investment in the story. He treats it in a skilful yet frustratingly dispassionate manner, and refuses to wring more emotion out of the script.
The Ghost is a well-constructed thriller directed with style – particularly the inspired framing of the final shot – yet it lacks any truly personal touches from Polanski. It’s entertaining enough, but one can’t help but be frustrated that this might be his last cinematic endeavour, as it shows his directorial skills to be on fine, if uninspired and impersonal, form. If it proves to be Polanski’s last film, The Ghost will be no more than a stylish footnote on an illustrious career.