In Issue Four of Kill Your Darlings (available tomorrow), Jake Wilson studies the echoes of Polanski’s artistic past. Read an exclusive pre-publication extract from the review here.
Could Roman Polanski and Michel Houellebecq – two arch-cynics – ever find a way of working together? A fanciful thought, and yet it’s hard for me to watch Polanski’s latest thriller, The Ghost Writer, without recalling the title of Houellebecq’s 2005 novel, The Possibility of an Island. That possibility is diminishing for all of us in a world of constant news broadcasts, of Facebook and Google Street View, of omnipresent surveillance devices and mobile phones. Nowadays, privacy is threatened in ways beyond the worst nightmares of the persecuted victims in Polanski’s earlier films, whose legitimate fears often fuse with paranoid delusions, as in Repulsion (1963) and The Tenant (1976).
Usually, these characters are socially and culturally displaced, like Polanski himself: a Pole who left his homeland after his first feature, Knife in the Water (1962), and has been in transit ever since (The Ghost Writer was shot in Germany, with financing from various European sources). Indeed, the search for refuge is one of his constant themes, with protagonists either fending off invaders or stepping into mysterious spaces ruled by unknown laws – such as the shadowy realm of book dealers in The Ninth Gate (1997), or the labyrinthine Italian villa explored by the frequently nude heroine (Sydne Rome) of his underrated sex comedy What? (1973).
Polanski’s latest exercise in this vein, The Ghost Writer, is full of echoes of his artistic past. Yet it’s also a very modern film, based on a novel by the British journalist Robert Harris, that takes overt inspiration from recent headlines and makes no bones about caricaturing the author’s one-time friend, Tony Blair. The central figure is a recently departed British prime minister named Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), branded a war criminal for approving the torture of terror suspects offshore.
A good-looking fitness enthusiast and a former Cambridge Footlights star, Lang has a strained relationship with his clever, embittered wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), and seems closer to Amelia (Kim Cattrall), his loyal personal assistant. At the film’s outset, all three characters are holed up with a small army of staff in a high-security compound resembling a military bunker, on a windswept island off the coast of Massachusetts, where Lang hopes to fend off his accusers for long enough to finish his memoirs.
Or, rather, have somebody finish them for him. The latest arrival on the island is the ghost writer himself, a nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor with typically brash yet self-effacing charm. Like most of Polanski’s heroes, he’s not especially brave, noble or clever; as far as we can judge his main talent lies in coaxing his clients into supplying the kind of banal human-interest material that guarantees a best seller. He’s conceived as the ultimate innocent bystander, if not a perfect cipher: no family, no hobbies, no public profile or visible ties. His most firmly established personal traits are a taste for whisky and a lack of interest in politics, guaranteeing he’ll fail to connect the dots of the mystery until it’s too late.