April 05, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's latest film is bound to be interpreted in the context of the director's life, which I have commented on before: I will leave others to speculate about whether it is connected however. Partly this is because the film was completed before Mr Polanski was thrown in a Swiss jail, partly because this is an interesting piece of work in its own light without any of the outside scandal. The Ghost Writer is about a character, played by Ewan McGregor, who is invited to ghost write the memoirs of a British Prime Minister, Adam Lang. Lang is loosely modelled on Tony Blair (there are references to Halliburton, Condi Rice, Cheri Blair, Robin Cook and others scattered through it) and has the same loose charisma, easy charm and non-political background. Like Blair at Oxford, Lang at Cambridge was by his own account more interested in girls than politics and for Blair's pop music, we are tempted to read Lang's theatre. The ghost writer is brought in because his predecessor- loosely modelled on Alistair Campbell- has died under suspicious circumstances. His job is to finish the memoirs, but he soon turns to investigating why the other man died.

All this takes place against another kind of background. From the first moment we meet Lang, almost, we are aware that he is under investigation at the ICC. This adds an atmosphere of confinement to the movie- it also brings the ghost writer to the Lang's complex in America. He has to come in so as to escape the press and unwittingly becomes an actor in the internal domestic dramas of Lang's home. Ruth becomes close to the ghost writer and accuses Mrs Bly of being Lang's mistress. Her intelligence is one of the features of the film. Lang himself is around but not there, the household is left to his wife, the ghost and the security men for much of the crucial middle section of the film whilst he travels to Washington to receive support from the American Congress and Administration. Whilst he is gone, the relationships inside the house become more and more intense. Polanski, an old master if nothing else, is able to make the atmosphere seem both wild and confined. McGregor seems to suspect that he is in real danger at many points- cars follow him to a marvellously sinister meeting with a Harvard Professor (played by Tom Wilkinson) and mysterious meetings are arranged in American diners.

What I liked about the film was the narrative thrust, as Roger Ebert says in his review this is a film which is purely a good story told well. The implied contemporary history is of course nonsense and Lang is not Blair: the film does not capture Blair's idealism at all. If I were Cherie Blair, I would be very flattered: Ruth Lang is the most intelligent character in the entire film and Olivia Williams portraying her gives the performance that sticks in your mind most. As a complete fiction though the film still is interesting: it charts a junction between politics and high finance and arms production charted many times before. What is interesting about this is the temptation of that frame to an intelligent man like Polanski: I think it reflects on a second quality which the film does get, the unreality of political life. Political life takes place amongst normal people but at a distance from the rest of us: politicians like Adam Lang inhabit secure complexes with every imaginable luxury. Those luxuries though taste like dirt because of another factor that I think the film does capture.

This is the loneliness of power. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown says Henry IV, and he is right. Lang is lonely- he doesn't have friends he can trust or even perhaps a wife he can trust. Ruth is lonely, so spiky that she puts thorns into any hand that is reached out to her. You can go on with a list of people whose relationships are all professional. The ghost writer is the only real source of affection in the film, his affection is used but in a sense the reason why you retain sympathy with him is both the absurd plot, but even more so it is the fact that he gives back an emotional commitment that the other characters are not capable of.


James Higham said...

There is no doubt the man is an excellent filmmaker. Such a pity he forced himself on Samantha Geimer all those years ago.

James Wilson said...

He certainly is a master filmmaker, and for me the Pianist is the definitive Holocaust film, indeed one of the very best WWII films full stop.

Interesting comment re Blair's idealism. Much of his other actions - in fact the vast majority - betray a jobbing, populist politician. His interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq, however, were many things, but they were not the actions of a populist. (Afghanistan I don't think was either, but the intervention post 9/11 had much more public support than any of the others, though of course the popular support is much less now).