It occurs to me that the only person in the entire world who won’t enjoy Roman Polanski’s cracking new movie will be Tony Blair. Oh, all right, Cherie might shift uneasily in her seat once or twice. I mean, how much fun can it be to have your character go to bed with Ewan McGregor? Robert Harris, who wrote the screenplay with Polanski—and the thriller on which it is based—has gone out of his way to claim, that although there is, er, some resemblance between his ex-prime minister, who is being aggressively investigated for over-enthusiastic collaboration with the American government in the interrogation of terror suspects, and his old ex-chum Blair—“when I started writing, the image of Tony Blair went out of the window.” Which window would that be, I wonder? Rear Window, maybe, for the film is a chain of homages to Hitchcock which, you understand, is not a complaint. But if Harris—who proves his gifts as a screenwriter rather sensationally here—is deeply worried about us sensing that a smidgeon of resemblance to persons living might not be entirely coincidental, he can relax for the decidedly weird performance of Pierce Brosnan in the ex-PM role is in fact a million miles away from the richly complicated Mr. Blair.
Forget the real-world echoes—or at least don’t let them get in the way of immersing yourself in the gloomy joy of this brilliant movie.
For starters there’s the accent, which seems to belong to someone from the former Yugoslavia uneasily transplanted to the suburbs of Dundee. Then there’s the persona, which for reasons were I to explore further with you would entirely Give the Game Away, but let’s just say which seems from the get-go to be so fabulously sham as to preclude a career as town councilor for Scunthorpe much less prime minister of this here Yew Kay. The name alone—Adam Lang—sounds as though it must once have been something else. Someone says of this pseudo-Blair, that his appeal to the voters was precisely that he didn’t sound or look like a politician (you can say that again); but more like the actor he had in fact been as a student in Cambridge. Yes, but not a bad actor, I think.
Robert Harris has also said that he hopes his ex-prime minister, holed up in his publisher’s brutally modernist house on Martha’s Vineyard in rain-sodden winter, while he gets his memoirs in order, a previous ghost writer having been washed up in the waves, is “a universal political figure.” Well, don’t expect Coriolanus but then you wouldn’t want to. The Ghost Writer is a lot more fun. I use that last term loosely for much of the movie is a scowlfest: a mood in which Polanski often excels. Remember his Tess of the Glummervilles? Not a patch on The Island itself (what is it, by the way, about poor old Massachusetts that has our greatest directors saying to themselves, “I want an island from utter HELL: Call the Massachusetts Film Board right away will you?”) Whichever stretch of the German shoreline Polanski used to impersonate the sodden dunes, the grim-gray shingling; the gruesome Ye Olde studded red leatherish hotel lounge furniture; the bonneted check-in girl; the euthanasiac expressionist art hanging on the walls of a house that has Compound written all over it in not entirely a good way—should get an Oscar next year for Best Supporting Role. Only the Yiddish-Gothic face of Eli Wallach (may he never pass) in a small but gorgeous bit part (think Norman Bates' mama but not actually dead)—not to mention the matzo ball glottals—seems to belie the character’s claim to have lived on the bladderwort-strangled shores of the Vineyard for nigh on many decades.
It’s not just the landscape and the storm-petrel waves (just looking at them will make you reach for the Dramamine) that turn in great performances. His performance as the unnamed ghost writer is the best thing Ewan McGregor has ever done and before you say that’s setting the bar pretty low, it was actually a tough part to take on: a cocky popular fiction writer, impervious to the thrills of politics and power; high on his predictably banal insight that dull memoirs could be made hot by Revealing the True Man behind the mask; and crashing from one mantrap to the next. McGregor has exactly the right kind of eye-rubbing, dopey-clumsy bravura, half-oaf, half-hero; his face a picture of dawning understanding. Think Cary Grant from Croydon (and for all I know Cary Grant was from Croydon). McGregor makes duh innocently sexy. But then he has Kim Cattrall and Olivia Williams to play against, lucky bugger. They are the yin and the yang of the whole film and they dance the dialectic to perfection. Cattrall is the control-freak guardian of the ex-prime minister’s fortunes and she does a slow burn of such controlled intensity that even her sweaters are frightening. Olivia Williams, as the PM’s wife Ruth, is something else again—an animal spirit, mostly feline, who gives fantastic hiss, spit, snarl, and purr, with occasional digressions into hatred, lust, and rain-drenched despair. She never finishes her soup and she wears a toweling robe with a certain je ne sais quoi. Well actually I do, but never you mind.
And then there is our ageing fugitive director to thank for this. And we should, for The Ghost Writer is a piece of thrilling cinematic creepiness, beautiful in its gloom and knuckle-crackingly sinister in its pacing that puts it right up there with the best things Polanski has ever done—say Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and his stupendous Knife in the Water. It seems amazing that this study in many kinds of contemporary isolation and confinement, including those of the public glare, was written and filmed before Polanski himself became involuntarily re-acquainted with those themes, though perhaps the editing might have been sharpened by his experience. But it would actually be a shame if two, admittedly irresistible stories around, the movie—that of the ex-prime minister (the real version of whom remains defiant about his support for the Iraq War, with, whatever one thinks about that, a principled eloquence that make the Adam Lang outburst on the subject a jejune and hollow caricature)—blinded us to what a phenomenal piece of pure movie-making Polanski has turned in. There are few dead bounces on the tennis court—the Yale professor played for once awkwardly by Tom Wilkinson—but mostly Polanski and Harris have caught the worlds they are representing: the publishing industry with old-style editors desperately hanging on amid the Bottom Line butchers; the better-paranoid-than-porous security detail surrounding Lang—with complete authenticity. There’s a clammy dampness hanging over the whole enterprise and I don’t mean the chowder.
So forget the real-world echoes—or at least don’t let them get in the way of immersing yourself in the gloomy joy of this brilliant movie. And how could you not surrender to a film in which the GPS voice is a crucial character? Would Hitchcock have liked that? Hey, is Massachusetts rainy?
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Simon Schama is a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. He has been an essayist and critic for The New Yorker since 1994, his art criticism winning the National Magazine Award in 1996. Parts III and IV of his new series, The American Future: A History, air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on BBC America.