Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Ghost: paranoia thrillers revived

Roman Polanski's latest, THE GHOST [or THE GHOST WRITER as the American dvd is titled] splendidly revives the paranoia thriller of the '70s (like Pakula's trio KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and also has that 'look': the metallic steel colours, creepy destinations and the feeling of not being able to trust anyone. Robert Harris's book was a terrific read and could hardly be more topical - a British ex-Prime Minister lying low while preparing his memoirs as moves are made to try him for war crimes regarding the war in Iraq.

The publishers have a problem as the first ghost-writer brought in to knock the dull manuscript into shape has been washed up dead off Martha's Vineyard where our PM and his entourage are holed up in the winter off-season. Hack writer Ewan McGregor (a tad too young perhaps?) is brought in and gets the gig and is soon on his way to the deserted USA East Coast. Kim Catterall is Amelia the brisk, rather under-written, aide who welcomes him to the bunker-like retreat as he settles down with the manuscript, which cannot leave the premises. The vistas of the gloomy retreat are nicely done, with the incessant rain and cold, and our hero is about the only guest at the empty Inn - apart from the odd man who asks if he knows Adam Lang (our PM in hiding - Pierce Brosnan is just right here with that mix of arrogance and bluff).

Slowly our un-named ghost begins to find out about what happened to his predecessor as his fears grow for his own safety. Where does the Prime Minister's wife Ruth fit into all this - Olivia Williams is also perfectly judged here ... showing the bitterness of the wife in exile, whose husband seems to be closer to his aide Amelia (Catterall). Out cycling in the rain the ghost comes across the old guy who insists the body could not have been washed up where it was found - this is a few minutes cameo by Eli Wallach, now in his 90s (in movies since the mid-50s, with memories of his Guido in THE MISFITS for one) its great to see him here, even if briefly. On using the car last used by his predecessor its satnav delivers him to that house deep in the woods with the unwelcoming professor Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, also splendid as ever). Minor quibbles here are surely that everything used by the previous ghost would have been removed by Lang's security, and can one really Google information about operatives of the CIA?

While Lang and his aides are away the ghost and the PM's wife tentatively get closer, but then the tension racks up with our ghost being tailed from the professor's house (just as his predecessor was) but Ewan is cleverer and manages to get off the ferry giving his followers the slip ... then Lang returns as events come to a head. Back in London the manuscript is now successfully published as Amelia invites the ghost to the opening and a chance remark of hers leads him to the secret contained in the manuscript. This is nicely handled in the book as the ghostwriter realises he must flee and go into hiding, but the ending seems rather rushed here - it seems improbable that a car would be waiting for him so quickly ... but the last image of the pages of the manuscript blowing away in the wind is perfectly apt, and its CHINATOWN all over again.

Polanski (I passed him in Sloane Square, Chelsea once back in the late '60s) now in his mid-70s is at the top of his form here, and no matter what else, he is one director actors will want to work with. [I still rewatch his delightful 1967 spoof DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and of course REPULSION, CUL-SE-SAC and CHINATOWN are essential]. He assembles a terrific team here, it was filmed in Germany I believe fitting in nicely for the East Coast USA, but surely it looks under-populated - often there is nobody else around on those deserted roads and towns; but as a film it is leagues better than those tedious, boring, uninvolving so-called thrillers like MICHAEL CLAYTON which I had enough of after 40 minutes!

Robert Harris was one of prime minister Tony Blair's inner circle until leaving over the Iraq question, so he writes with knowledge of the workings of British politics, and its amusing to see the Langs as the Blairs. The book is a terrific read - literally unputdownable - and the film does it justice. The cast is just right, particularly Olivia Williams. Highly recommended then. Polanski was also involved in setting up a film of a previous highly readable Harris novel POMPEII, pity that did not just became a mini-series, it would have been fascinating seeing what Roman did with it. I have been keeping Harris' new highly praised novel LUSTRUM (more intrigue in Ancient Rome) as a holiday read but I don't think I can wait that long now...

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