There is much the viewer will find familiar in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost, adapted for screen with the aid of author and screen writer Robert Harris. The fallen prime minister facing investigation by The Hague for war crimes, desperate to control his legacy, his every move dogged by angry protesters; the anguished father whose son died in his “illegal war”; the foreign secretary who opposes his own government. These could be newspaper headlines from almost any week in the last decade.
Harris has denied on several occasions that the ousted prime minister of his novel is Tony Blair, and this distance has some narrative advantages. Rather than resorting to mockumentary “what-ifery”, as much political drama today does, The Ghost relentlessly slaps its audience about the face with enough contemporary political references to leave even the terminally dense in no doubt about where its aim is directed, while the narrative remains unfettered in its exploration of complicity, betrayal and the consequences of trying to hold the powerful to account.
Not without wit, the portrayal of the hysterical security arrangements of a couple now literally out of touch with their public draws a knowing chuckle from the audience. None-the-less this film never quite lives up to its potential. As a thriller it rarely achieves the atmosphere of tension or the sense of threat the circumstances would suggest, and that is a political failing as well as an aesthetic weakness – especially disappointing as this comes from the minds behind The Pianist and Fatherland.
In some ways the portrayal of Adam Lang, the Blairite premier, is too heavily built on the received wisdom of the media: “He was not a politician,” the hero tells us, “He was a craze.” But from this vapid portrayal of the disgraced Labour leader a compelling image emerges, that of the world’s biggest stooge: an upper middle class twit, empty of ideals, sentimentally stumbling into politics; an actor constructed by more devious minds into an electoral juggernaut aimed at the lowest common denominator. Without convictions he becomes nothing more than the tool of US imperialism, the grinning face of extraordinary rendition, torture and British cretinism. In office he is an illusion – if not actually “The Ghost” then little more than a phantom.
Whatever the film’s failings, Polanski and Harris have succeeded in speaking to the lasting fury of a movement that, right around the world, brought millions onto the streets in protest. This film adds its voice to those of countless others who, just like the angry pickets that follow the fictional Adam Lang, will surely hound Blair, the real-life war criminal, right into his grave. How’s that for a legacy?
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