The sniggers from the wings continue with ‘The Ghost’, an adaptation of Robert Harris’s bold and enjoyable novel that balances political reality with trashy fantasy and which was inspired by the former journalist’s disappointment with Tony Blair. In Harris’s hands, Blair becomes Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a slick but empty former prime minister facing trial for war crimes and hiding from the public glare in the United States. The similarities between Blair and Lang are pointed – but the differences are enough that Harris and Polanski get away with placing familiar characters in a tight and tense plot more wild than the dreary reality of high politics. The dreariness is left to the weather.
Starting in a wet London, we watch as a green writer (Ewan McGregor, better than usual but struggling with an Estuary accent) is hired to finish Lang’s memoirs. The last chap died on the job, so there’s an ominous mood in the air as he travels to an isolated, modern beach house in a windswept Martha’s Vineyard and finds an air of deep discord. Lang’s wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams, styled with nods to Cherie Blair), is a quietly forceful but sad figure behind the scenes, while Lang’s relationship with his assistant (Kim Cattrall) is causing tension. When Lang flies to Washington to try to rescue his reputation, his ghost begins to uncover secrets which contradict the Langs’ version of their past and put him in increasing danger.
Unlike, say, ‘The Queen’, which delighted in the ordinariness of what goes on behind powerful doors, Harris and Polanski delight in pushing their story beyond the bounds of reality – but never so far that the the film has no relevance. While Brosnan’s rictus performance is to be grinned at, the fabric of the film is grey, heavy and steely, demanding that we share the ghost’s fear and take his peril seriously. As a thriller, the film is cold and lean, and the photography and design convey a strong sense of isolation and a world gone wrong. There are terrific scenes, not least one that involves a sat-nav guiding the action, and the film’s moody opening and closing scenes are as striking as the image Polanski creates of a weather-beaten coastline seen through the glass wall of Lang’s office.
There’s no escaping some laughable plot turns. Can you really unravel the CIA via Google? But the thread of black humour that runs throughout the film compensates for its occasional moments of madness. It’s a film just silly enough to be taken deadly seriously.