Review: The Ghost

This review has the rare distinction of straddling two sections for the first time. It’s both a review of the book The Ghost by Robert Harris and the film of the same name directed by Roman Polanski with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan in starring roles.

Harris and Polanski wrote the screenplay together and what is unique about this book/film combo is the quality of each is consistent. Films made from books tend to succumb to the creative licence of their directors and are normally kept at arm’s length by their  progenitors. Not this time and the film is nearly identical to the source material.

Where it succeed is by being a fictional catharsis that manages to provide an absurd, but at least a logical explanation for how former prime minister Tony Blair could take the promise of his 1997 landslide election and turn the UK into Airstrip One for the U.S Government.

Harris, himself a former friend of Blair, pulls no punches with the allusions he makes to the former prime minister, particularly with the youthful disinterest of Adam Lang (Brosnan) in politics and his preferred love for acting. The writer (McGregor) in both the book and film is anonymous, but he’s not so much a stand-in for Harris as he is for the British public. People too young to remember what Blair represented, or people who are watching it as a foreign film, will find it an enjoyable political thriller-mystery that happens to be both a good book and a good film about the UK Government starring big billing actors. The rest of us will understand and feel  it to be a torch-lit meandering through a maze of Transatlantic connections; chancery and deception that culminates in the big reveal that is almost reassuring and an answer to the mystery of Blair’s motivations.

So many questions remain from the Blair-era about Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ that the great enigma of Tony Blair has never been answered. Brosnan is pitch perfect, photogenic and convincing as a politician that could sell ice to the Eskimos but also one who is deeply troubled; unsure of himself when he is unmasked in the dressing room of his private life. He’s also sly and wrapped up in his own interpretation of what is ‘right’ and has no comprehension of seeing where his prosecutors against war crimes are coming from. Sound familiar?

Particular credit should be given to McGregor and to Olivia Williams and Ruth Lang. McGregor is taciturn and inquisitive, carefully fumbling his way through the myriad of layers of deception that he finds and is entirely convincing. Olivia Williams is a master of her craft and her multifaceted portrayal of Lang’s wife as frustrated and stuffy Cherie Blair-mimic is deeply convincing given the later reveal.

Polanski’s skill in this film is to give life to the grey world so brilliantly written by Harris. This is a thriller, but it’s much more: it’s brutally close to the bone for how the British public thinks the Blair years probably were and it gives an almost perfect account for what went so wrong in British politics since ’97.

I read the book when I was visiting the Isle of Lewis. For those of you who haven’t been, it’s cold and desolate but stunningly beautiful with beaches of wispy grass and wild seas. Polanski’s visuals perfectly captured the memory of reading the book here, and watching the film, and seeing the Lang compound, was like reading the book back on Lewis; the isolation was stark and Polanski perfectly replicates this with the Lang bunker vs the rest of the world dichotomy.

Ultimately, the pairing of Harris and Polanski is a successful one. Mood and colour and Alexander Desplat’s subtle and conspiratorial music make this a memorable and delightful exploration of the ‘special-relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom.

 The former foreign secretary in the book and film, Richard Rycart (Robert Pugh), is more the eponymous ‘ghost’ than McGregor’s character. His commitment to justice, to human rights and to the truth is highly reminiscent of the much missed former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair’s government before the Iraq War. If anything, the lingering question is if good men of conscience, like Cook, had remained in positions of influence, both in government and in public life, would there have been more accountability and less spin?