Roman Polanski's eagerly awaited new thriller earned a mostly warm reception at the Berlin film festival on Friday, even though the veteran Franco-Polish director was, literally, detained elsewhere. Principal filming on The Ghost Writer ended a year ago, but Polanski, 76, was still editing when he was arrested in Zurich last September. Even as he awaited possible extradition to the US on 32-year-old charges, he continued to supervise the film's post-production while under house arrest.
Adapted by the novelist Robert Harris from his 2007 best-seller, The Ghost Writer is a chilly political conspiracy yarn starring Ewan McGregor as a down-at-heel celebrity biographer hired to help polish the memoirs of Pierce Brosnan's former British prime minister, Adam Lang, a smooth operator clearly modelled on Tony Blair. During the ghosting process, the writer unearths some sinister secrets just as Lang's shadowy links to illegal CIA rendition flights and torture make him a target for war crimes charges.
The action mostly takes place on Martha's Vineyard, off the New England coast, in a starkly modernist seafront mansion. Shooting in northern Germany rather than the US, for obvious reasons, Polanski makes good use of this fortress-like house and the relentlessly grim winter weather outside, slowly building the sense of alienation and creeping tension. With his sun-weathered good looks and mid-Atlantic accent, Brosnan is well cast as a Blair-like elder statesman, especially as Lang is a former actor known for his slick charm and silver tongue. His measured performance manages to suggest arrogance and duplicity without veering too far into theatrical villainy.
McGregor is less convincing, sporting a vaguely London-ish accent that sounds false and forced. No Scottish actor since Sean Connery has proved quite so limited when his voice strays south of the border and beyond. Even Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City fame, playing Lang's frosty personal assistant and mistress, musters more credible English pronunciation. This will probably mean nothing to non-British audiences, but it grated on my ears.
Indeed, perhaps this is a consequence of Polanski's having English as his third or fourth language, but there are some strikingly hammy, one-dimensional performances here from normally reliable players such as Tom Wilkinson and Robert Pugh. Only the excellent Olivia Williams manages to suggest a fully rounded, multilayered character as Ruth, Lang's manipulative but ultimately fragile wife. But the more deep-seated problems with The Ghost Writer are those imported directly from the novel, so Harris and Polanski must share the blame. The dialogue is stilted, the characters thinly drawn, the action slow and stagy.
The final explosive twist, a secret clue buried in the text of Lang's memoirs, is groaningly implausible tosh worthy of Dan Brown. There is little room for subtlety, nuance or ambiguity in such a plodding and thumpingly old-fashioned plot. The film's post-screening press conference in Berlin was a crammed affair with McGregor, Brosnan, Williams and Harris flanked by a clutch of producers. Everyone was keen to avoid the subject of Polanski's current legal woes, with only Brosnan addressing his arrest directly.
"I was shocked, disappointed and saddened," he said. "I wondered why now, after such a long time?" The Irish star also claimed Polanski had told him to avoid impersonating Tony Blair in his performance, but he still studied footage of the former prime minister as research. "I looked at him as this Shakespearean character," Brosnan explained. "This hollow man who had fallen and lost his way." Harris also expressed bemusement at how the film had become increasingly prophetic in recent weeks, with Tony Blair's appearance at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, and revelations about the interrogation of the former Guantanamo inmate Binyam Mohamed.
"It's been a very strange experience," said Harris. "The book was written three years ago, and since then events seem to have conspired almost daily to make the movie seem more like a documentary than a fantasy." So far, critical reaction in Berlin to The Ghost Writer has been broadly positive. Britain's Guardian branded it Polanski's "most purely enjoyable film for years" and "a Manchurian Candidate for the 2010s". The Hollywood Reporter called it "slick but superficial", yet still predicted "a sure-fire box office hit". Several reviews draw flattering parallels to Hitchcock.
The Ghost Writer is no Hitchcock movie. It's not even classic Polanski. But it is one of the beleaguered director's better efforts of the past 20 years. Not a masterpiece, just a decent little B-movie thriller haunted by a few ghosts of its own.