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Could Roman Polanski and Michel Houellebecq – two archcynics – 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.

As we soon learn, this ghost is the second writer to accept the job of helping Lang with the book; his predecessor fell off the ferry and drowned en route to the mainland, leaving a completed but impenetrable manuscript behind. In the film’s opening sequence, this character is also visualised as an absence: after the ferry docks at the terminal and all the passengers disembark, a single car remains on board without its driver.

Viewers may immediately suspect foul play, but it takes a while for the ghost himself to wake up to the possibility. Dozing through his flight and his boat ride, he arrives at his destination jet-lagged, disorientated and out of his depth – like the American businessman (Harrison Ford) making his way to a Paris hotel at the beginning of Frantic (1988). Without often resorting to direct point-of-view shots, Polanski ensures that we share this feeling of relinquishing control, which can be soothing as well as suspenseful. For much of the film, we sit next to the ghost as he glides from one location to another in a black official car, following an itinerary known only to the filmmaker. From the moment he leaves for the island, the film has the atmosphere of a dream: repeatedly we see him roused from sleep by a summons from his employers, as if shifting from one kind of trance to another.

Polanski is always a rational and grounded director, patiently developing a mood through carefully chosen details – most of them individually plausible, yet cumulatively distancing us from the waking world. Deserted in the off-season, the hotels are cluttered with maritime bric-a-brac for the tourist trade; the compound’s widepicture windows open onto low-lying sand dunes, strewn with dry grass waving in the breeze; the grey walls are lined with semi-abstract paintings in murky dark brown or violent red.

When Amelia praises the ghost’s powers of observation, the viewer is implicitly challenged to notice more; many touches are almost subliminal, only revealing their import on a second viewing. The main characters are shadowed by functionaries who lurk like stagehands at the edges of the action, such as Ruth’s bodyguard, who trails her night and day, and clearly knows more than he’s willing to disclose. There’s also a pair of middle-aged Asian servants, who might be husband and wife: she serves up meals in silence, while he labours outside the compound, raking stray strands of grass into a wheelbarrow only to have the wind scatter them again.

Sound is always vital for Polanski, and here, too, a feeling of foreboding is induced by elements that may not be consciously registered, at first – like the sirens heard a couple of times out on the street during the ghost’s initial meeting with his London publishers. Whenever the story is on the move, Alexandre Desplat’s busy, chugging score contributes immeasurably to the build-up of tension, often rising to a crescendo before giving way to eerie near-silence. Other sounds recur like motifs in a symphony: the clip-clop of Amelia’s heels on the staircase, the steady patter of rain, mobile ringtones that shatter the uneasy calm.

Thanks to these repetitions, Lang’s chilly, besieged fortress soon feels like a familiar and therefore reassuring world in itself – which might be the film’s slyest trick. True to Harris’s novel, The Ghost Writer qualifies as one of the angriest and most explicit attacks on Anglo- American foreign policy in recent popular cinema. And yet, perversely and characteristically, Polanski refuses to play favourites: along with the ghost, we find ourselves uncomfortably aligned with the putatively villainous Lang against the do-gooders campaigning to bring him down. Like all such groups in Polanski’s work, the protesters who dog Lang’s footsteps when he goes for a run are portrayed as a howling, unlovely mob. A turning point comes when the ghost agrees to put his professional skills to use by crafting Lang’s response to the criminal charges; at a bar that night, he hears his own words on the evening news, already part of the official record. ‘You’re one of us now,’ Amelia tells him the next morning.

The inevitable conclusion is that politics is a kind of collective hallucination, at least for those who experience it via the media. (For victims of torture, naturally, it’s something else.) In a truly uncanny moment, Polanski cuts from a helicopter hovering above Lang and his entourage as they leave the compound to an overhead shot of the same scene watched on television by the ghost. It takes a couple of seconds to deduce that the helicopter contains a camera crew, videotaping images that are simultaneously being broadcast live: a closed loop. In no other Polanski film are characters put on this kind of public display; all the same, they seem to be making statements and gestures in a void, so that supposed life-or-death consequences are hardly a concern. Lang, to be sure, is assigned an impassioned speech where he defends the role of torture in ensuring national security; but does he deliver it with more than an actor’s flair?

Like any successful thriller, The Ghost Writer is an exercise in leading the audience down the garden path (if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading here). After some investigations on and off the island, the ghost comes to believe that Lang is directly aligned with the United States government, and that his predecessor was bumped off after learning too much. But this proves to be wrong, or half-right, at most: the missing link in the chain is Ruth, who was recruited by the CIA in the mid-1970s, and has been manipulating her unwitting husband ever since in the interests of her masters. This revelation has literally been staring the ghost in the face – embedded in Lang’s original manuscript like an acrostic, recalling the anagrams Mia Farrow decodes with the aid of Scrabble tiles in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

If the plot has a flaw, it’s that Polanski gives us no chance to solve this particular puzzle for ourselves. Still, in retrospect we can see that he has presented us with numerous other clues, including Lang’s background in theatre and Ruth’s frank admission that he usually takes her advice. Even the title has a double meaning: Ruth is the true, hidden ‘author’ of Lang’s political career. Then again, she has her own ‘ghost’, the respected American academic Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), outed online as another member of the CIA. And he, too, has a wife, who readily supplies her husband with false information and watches through the kitchen doorway as the ghost leaves their house…

So who’s really pulling the strings? In Polanski’s universe, there are only two kinds of characters, the manipulators and the manipulated. But there’s always the potential for the resulting power relations to be modified or reversed – as happens in a film like Bitter Moon (1992), where the sadomasochism is explicitly erotic. If The Ghost Writer is centrally a film about the creation of a book, the process of filmmaking can be seen as a comparable kind of conspiracy, inevitably involving power struggles of various kinds. As writer and actor respectively, neither the ghost nor Lang have any success at controlling the course of events; if any character serves as a representative of Polanski himself, it’s surely Ruth, a behind-the-scenes power monger who ‘directs’ nearly everyone in sight.

In a sense, The Ghost Writer is precisely a film about the question of authorship, fiercely contested in cinema and politics alike. If political speechwriters occasionally challenge their bosses over ownership of official language, this struggle has a parallel in the eternal war between screenwriters and directors over who deserves to be viewed as the author of a movie. Credited jointly to Polanski and Harris, the screenplay of The Ghost Writer follows Harris’s novel almost scene for scene, yet the finished film is so purely Polanski’s that we’re tempted to forget about the story’s originator. A similar uncertainty exists in the realm of acting, especially with a director who is famous for his tightly controlling ways: when McGregor looks up at a key moment to pull a grotesque face, who’s the ‘ghost’ and who’s the real performer?

Of course, the title incorporates another kind of pun as well: from the outset, McGregor’s character is viewed as a mere shadow, one of the walking dead. Ultimately, he meets his end off-screen, just as his predecessor did, leaving the pages of his manuscript to be scattered by the wind like the gardener’s strands of grass. This bleak yet perfect ending can be taken as one more sign of Polanski’s disillusionment – but also as a way of putting the whole story in quotation marks, sealing off any possible escape routes to the outside world. It’s oddly consoling that The Ghost Writer, along with the rest of Polanski’s work, leads nowhere and proves nothing: a film like an island, singular and complete.