Apr 21, 2010

Film Review: The Ghost

DIR: Roman Polanski
CAST: Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, Pierce Brosnan,
Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson

You’ll notice that I’ve written the title of this film slightly oddly. That’s because I’m not sure what it’s actually called, and neither is the film itself. The (very abrupt) opening title has it as The Ghost while the closing credits - which, to be honest, don’t have the tacked on feel of that opening title - suggest that the title is The Ghost Writer. Sadly, whatever it’s called, this is one of the more interesting questions raised by Roman Polanski’s latest.

What really struck me while watching The Ghost was how stale the whole thing felt. Some critics have dubbed this a return to 70’s style filmmaking; slow and deliberate pacing rather than the ten cuts per second that a lot of modern cinema throws at you. I’d like nothing better than to say that that was true, but the problem here is that that slow pace is used in the service of a story that feels utterly by the numbers. The plot plods forward step by laboured step, nothing truly dynamic really happens, nothing in this thriller ever thrills - well, unless you think Ewan McGregor typing is the height of excitement - because by the time the film reaches its ultimate destination you’ve already been there for some time, made yourself a drink, and put your feet up to wait for Polanski and company to join you.

This is also a lazy film in almost every way. The plot turns, as is sadly so often the case now, on the main character running a Google search. This usually strains credulity, but here it’s just laughable. McGregor’s ghost writer, suspicious of the former Prime Minister (Brosnan) whose memoirs he is currently rewriting, runs a very simple search and, essentially, uncovers a global conspiracy with about three clicks. And they say investigative journalism is hard work. That said, Polanski is a great filmmaker and he’s made serviceable thrillers out of unpromising or silly screenplays before (see The Ninth Gate, for example).

Sadly he can’t pull it off this time out. The direction is possibly the most disappointing aspect of The Ghost. It seems as though Polanski was present on the set only in body, because his work here is so listless, so disinterested, so irredeemably dull, that you can’t believe it’s the same man who made the likes of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown at the helm. There’s not one memorable shot in this film, nothing that has any verve to it, no image that will stick in your head. I haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby in two years, but still I can summon the image of Mia Farrow waking from a nightmare with scratches down her naked back. It’s been under 24 hours since I saw The Ghost and I’d struggle to relate one image from it without glancing at my notes.

There’s also a seeming lack of interest from the cast. Ewan McGregor, once possibly the finest actor of his generation, now lurches from paycheck job to paycheck job and he’s clearly not even trying here. His English accent is, as ever, abysmal, but it’s more than that, his character is the one who is supposed to take us with him into this murky political world, but he’s a blank slate. McGregor brings absolutely no personality to his nameless alter ego, and because he’s not interesting I didn’t care what he discovered (you also get the sense, thanks to his professed lack of interest in politics, that the character doesn’t care either, which really doesn’t help). Pierce Brosnan is better as Tony Blair - sorry - “Adam Lang”, but he too is underdeveloped and until the film’s one really good scene, when he at last confronts the moral issue of torturing suspected terrorists for information, Lang is really just a grinning Blair analogue played by Brosnan with enthusiasm and a dubious accent. The parade of bad accents continues with Kim Cattrall’s pretty damn funny attempt at upper class southern English as Lang’s secretary.

The sole reason to see The Ghost (other than to see just how insultingly terrible its ending is, because it really does beggar belief) is Olivia Williams. Now in her early 40’s, Williams has been plugging away in Hollywood since the late 90’s, when she debuted in Kevin Costner’s The Postman, but impressed in Rushmore. She’s had a low key career, and deserves better, if only because she takes what is another rather underwritten part (as Lang’s more politically astute wife) and invests it with a reality light years beyond what the rest of the cast manage. In a couple of scenes with McGregor she manages to kick a little real life into the film, and make you both wonder and care about her motives as she begins to get close to ‘the ghost’ (the McGregor character is never given a name). It’s not great work, not Oscar calibre (which I’ve seen suggested in a few reviews) but frankly I can see how people might think that, given what she’s playing against.

The Ghost - or The Ghost Writer - is a pretty terrible film; a plodding thriller, all but devoid of thrills, poorly executed by all but Olivia Williams and the overall feeling is one of watching some very talented people, especially McGregor and Polanski, pay their bills.

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