By Mark Carrigan
Given the likelihood that its director Roman Polanski may never make another film, it is difficult not to approach The Ghost Writer with high expectations and even higher hopes. The film tells the story of a ghost writer asked to rewrite the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang after the former incumbent of this role commits suicide. It soon becomes clear that Lang is a controversial figure, embroiled in accusations of war crimes and complicity in torture, as the hefty fee on offer for the ghost writer’s services soon seems to be outweighed by the tangled web of intrigue in which he becomes embroiled. He soon realises that there is more to the death of his predecessor then meets the eye and the film revolves around the unfolding of this mystery.
The Ghost Writer is beautifully shot throughout and Polanski makes particularly good use of weather (most of all the near continuous rain) in building a mood of doom and intrigue. It is also largely well cast, and Pierce Brosnan is a particularly superb choice as former PM Adam Lang. In the memorable words of Michael Wood in the London Review of Books, ‘Brosnan is an actor who can be suave and charming without the faintest effort but always looks like a model who has wandered into a movie from a photo-shoot’. He brings this cultivated blandness to the role of the Blair-like PM Adam Lang and performs it with great aplomb. Olivia Williams offers an intriguing performance as Lang’s wife Ruth, though one which seems oddly unconvincing in its intensity until the twist at the end of the film when it all falls into place. I felt that the weakest performance by far was Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer. Cynical and frustrated, remaining nameless for the entirety of the film and yet appearing in the great majority of scenes, this was a potentially fascinating role. Yet McGregor’s performance is strikingly flat and far too staid for the main protagonist in a political thriller.
In spite of the stunning cinematography and powerfully understated musical score, any sense of the film’s sophistication is belied, at least in part, by the weak dialogue and crude devices which hold it together. One particularly egregious example of such painfully blunt plot devices involves the ghost writer discovering that his dead predecessor’s final journey is still loaded into the Sat Nav in the car he has borrowed from the house. When the engine starts, the camera zooms ostentatiously upon the booting up navigation system, providing the most blatant signpost possible about the ensuing ‘twist’, yet we are treating to a succession of laboured exclamations from the ghost writer (along the lines of: ‘What are you doing?’, ‘That’s not where I’m going’, ‘Bloody malfunctioning Sat Nav!’) before what every member of the audience has already guessed is finally revealed. One cannnot help but get the impression that Polanski has little respect for his viewers. He sign posts the obvious in a way which is insulting, as well as counter-productive given his obvious intention that The Ghost Writer be the sort of thriller that keeps the audience on a knife-edge. Having the lead character read pertinent bits of text out loud (and never those bits that are not relevant) lest the audience miss them brings whatever prior suspense Polanski has built up to a grinding halt.
However, this well meaning scorn also manifests itself in the film’s implicit politics. Political fantasy pervades the film, perpetually undercutting the realism which Polanski’s directorial skill ensures in spite of the sometimes weak dialogue and overly clumsy plot devices. The film sits uneasily in relation to political reality, too far to offer insight into contemporary events and yet too near to spin an engaging tale. Tony Blair is at the centre of the film through the character of Adam Lang, and yet he is a caricature of himself (as to be fair, Blair was towards the end of his premiership). It is frustrating that the film deals with a totemic character like Blair and yet systematically fails to investigate the man’s moral psychology which, for all its manifold flaws, surely posses a significantly greater degree of complexity than the one dimensional Lang. Robin Cook’s ghost haunts the film, as the statesmanly Richard Rycart, valiantly fighting to bring the nefarious Lang to justice because, as every disappointed Labour loyalist knows, everything would have been fine if Robin Cook had stayed around government. It is a wonder that Claire Short and Mo Mowlam do not turn up in the film and thus complete the hagiographical halls of broken Labour dreams.
At times the film seems animated by the pervasive left-liberal dreams that the intrusion of evil (Blair / Lang’s war mongering) can be eradicated through the reassertion of the good (Cook / Rycart and the prosecutors at the Hague) rather than through any serious-minded engagement with the geo-political, economic, and domestic contexts within which these political actors pursue their (rather less Manichean) agendas. This is a striking example of a trend which the political theorist Chantal Mouffe suggests is symptomatic of liberal politics as such: an inability to properly conceive of the sphere of politics (a domain of conflicts and antagonisms between politics agents) leading to the moralisation of questions which are, at heart, political. The anti-war protestors portrayed intermittently throughout the film take the form of braying mob, with no political agency but a surfeit of moralising outrage.
Likewise, the complex chain of political causation that led to the Iraq war and its associated crimes are initially explained in terms of the moral failings of Adam Lang (his weakness, pride, and vacuity). When this explanation proves incomplete recourse is made to the machinations of the CIA and, with this, the defining political event of the middle of this decade (with all its ambiguities, complexities, and open questions) is reduced to a simple narrative of evil men and women conspiring for unknown ends. The resulting diagnosis inevitably embodies what Slavoj Žižek calls populist reason: the idea that the ‘good’ (a properly functioning and fair political system) can be restored through the elimination of the ‘bad’ (those actors who distort and contravene the ‘rules of the game’).
This manifests itself with graphic literalness in the assassination of Lang by one of the infantilised protestors. However, this only comes after Lang has been exposed as a managed CIA asset rather than a protagonist in his own right. While Lang’s handlers (the only characters in the film possessing political agency) are not eliminated in the film they are, crucially, unmasked and, at least initially, this unmasking is taken to be of self-evident worth. What matters is not that the ghost writer does anything with this knowledge, but simply that he knows. The immorality of the evil doers stands revealed and, with this, he is satisfied. Then he walks out into the street and is promptly hit and killed by an oncoming car. Bracketing out the sophistication and skill with which events are presented, it seems that the key events are this: the morally indignant murder the arrogant and manipulated, those who expose this manipulation ultimately die without meaningfully exposing anything, while the nefarious manipulators remain free to lurk in the shadows pulling the strings of the world.
These events convey the underlying ethos of the film. It fantastically plays out this unmasking of nefarious power (through the nameless ghost writer who symbolically bears witness on behalf of us all) while also defining it in terms of its ultimate futility. It takes a profoundly political subject matter and tells a story about it which manages the odd achievement of engaging in political fantasy while also offering an aggressively passive reading of the possibility that anything approaching this fantasy might come true. At heart, The Ghost Writer portrays a world of passive dupes manipulated by shadowy and untouchable figures and, rather than this being some alternative dystopia where such a portrayal could perhaps be enjoying, its world is our world. It sits close enough to political reality that it seems to be engaging with recent history and yet this ‘engagement’ is framed by the worst kind of liberal passivity and cynicism.
Perhaps I am setting the bar too high for this sort of film? Yet Oliver Stone offers some striking examples of this sort of political cinema within the mainstream, whether deftly exploring the minds of unpopular figures such as Nixon and Bush or playing out moral dramas about the past in JFK. I felt throughout that Polanski would have liked this film to shed light on recent political history in the same way and yet all it achieved was mystification. Beyond its poise and sophistication, The Ghost Writer is a deeply disappointing film.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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