Rating: 3 stars out of 5
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In 2007, The Ghost, a pulp political thriller written by commentator-turned-author Robert Harris, was published in Britain amid much critical and commercial fanfare.
The book, which centres on the life of a soul-less political leader, owed much of its success to public disillusionment with then-outgoing Prime Minister, Tony Blair. (Amongst other sins, Blair had thrown his weight behind the U.S Administration’s dubious invasion of Iraq.)
Three years later, The Ghost has been made into a film by Roman Polanski, a director whose sin and notoriety might be said to eclipse even Blair’s.
You can imagine how Polanski might have identified with the source material – the dull dread of public disgrace is a major trope in his staid and often plodding film adaptation, re-titled The Ghost Writer. (Polanski and Harris share the screenplay credit.)
As in the book, the film begins with a dead body washed up on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. Mike McAra, the longest-serving aide to a retired British premier Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), has drowned just hours after ghost-writing the first draft of his boss’ memoirs.
With a pressing deadline and doubts about the book’s commercial appeal, Lang’s publisher hires a new ‘ghost’ (Ewan McGregor) – known for his speed and sensationalism – to re-work McAra’s tedious manuscript.
The ghost is spirited to a seaside manor on Martha’s Vineyard, where McAra’s 600-page tome is kept under the cold eagle eye of Lang’s assistant and lover, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall, affecting an atrocious Brit accent).
Then, as the new writer begins his interviews with Lang, scandal breaks: The International Criminal Court has decided to try Lang for colluding in criminal anti-terror practises such as rendition and water-boarding.
Though the hack is initially sympathetic towards Lang, he gradually uncovers grim truths about the man’s political career and the influence of his shrewd, sexually neglected wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams).
To delve into the details of these secrets is to ruin what little fun might be had from the movie, which, like the book, shies determinedly away from character in favour of plot revelation.
That’s a problem, given the singular context its narrative seeks to exploit: The once controversial political and moral ethics of Tony Blair.
Now Blair is gone. Actually, Blair’s successor Gordon Brown is gone. And nobody even remembers who Blair is, nor cares to imagine the painful dilemmas he might have faced.
Polanski and Harris may suffer a similar fate with The Ghost Writer. With no universal strands to deepen and lift their story of corrupt political lives, the movie feels instantly obsolete.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper premiered in Singapore in March and was released in Malaysia on May 13.
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