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Ghost Writer

Over the last few years, almost all my output has been published under “house names”. This made the chance to go and see Ghost Writer irresistible. The film is co-written and directed by Roman Polanski, and based on the novel, The Ghost, by Robert Harris. As its theme, it takes an inside look at ghost-writing, a trade rather than a profession since we journeymen labour out of sight. Whereas ostensible authors put themselves about to maintain their reputations and sell the words, ghosts are never invited to the book launches. It would be too embarrassing for all concerned. Indeed, at the earliest possible moment in the offices of a top publisher, the ghost, played by Ewan McGregor, asserts that he is “nothing”, the unadmitted talent who, by a process of stealthy elicitation and necessary bullying, takes the words of another and turns out something readable. The film emphasises this by never naming the ghost-writer. Pierce Brosnan as the client calls him, “Man” — what he calls anyone (insignificant) whose name he cannot remember. Our null-man also uses a slight flippancy as a defence to maintain professional distance. Adding to the image is a genuine lack of interest in personal grooming. Yet, once asked about words, he becomes a different animal, sounding every word until he finds the mots justes for the job.

The skill of ghosting has two major components. The first is empathy to understand the nominal author’s way of thinking. I used to worry about ghosting for women, but words are words and framing is everything. The second is a sufficient core of stubborn competence to see what has to be done to save the work and produce a finished product by the stated deadline. In the film, our ghost is to be paid $250,000 to produce the autobiography of a retired British prime minister in one month. A not-impossible deadline because there is already a 600+ page draft for him to knock into shape. The only immediate blots on the landscape are that the previous writer, a long-standing aide and friend helping the PM, has died and, when he is returning home, the ghost is mugged and a manuscript he is carrying stolen. It’s not the PM’s manuscript, of course, but the muggers were not to know that.

Jet-lagged, he then confronts the real manuscript and finds sleep irresistible. As in most cases, he sees the need to start again. This emphasis on new beginnings is the first of the ghost’s successive failings to maintain that all-important “professional” distance between himself, the client and the notorious man’s entourage. As the mirror, he should reflect on, analyse and recast what the “author” says and writes, acting only as an editorial guide and not as an investigative journalist. He should not question the truthfulness of his author but, as circumstances rapidly change, our ghost is pulled into the real world and must make choices. Unfortunately, his curiosity overcomes his common sense. The running metaphor in the film is the futility of the Korean handyman’s task. Amongst other things, he is paid to keep the grounds around the PM’s retreat free of falling leaves. But, no matter how many times he thinks he has all the leaves heaped up ready for collection, the wind redistributes them.

Insofar as the film is about the war against terror, the most telling moment comes when our ex-PM resentfully attacks the masses who moralise and condemn rendition, water-boarding and imprisonment without trial. He deems this hypocrisy because they all-too-willingly take the benefits of the alleged safety this affords them. This is always the justification of self-deluding and corrupted leaders. They want a get-out-of-jail free card. Instead of applying the best moral (and legal) principles in their decision-making, they claim the luxury of being allowed to match the terrorists in their immorality. The delusion is that the masses will understand and forgive a leader who dirties his hands in their name, so long as he believes it is for their protection.

This is an ensemble cast led by Ewan McGregor who has entirely lost his Obi-Wan persona and, without an exception, even the walk-ons manage to underplay their roles. It would have been easy to make a potboiler melodrama. That it has emerged as a taut thriller is a testament to the willingness of the cast to subordinate their roles to the greater good, and the skill of the director in pacing the inexorable unravelling of the plot. Even Pierce Brosnan manages to look cracked round the edges as his character’s political ego comes under pressure (as when forced by the script to grin self-confidently in a press conference at the White House). The mainly German locations stand in beautifully for London and the American east coast, the completed whole being a lean and economical build to the conclusion. I confess to preferring the ending in the novel. That has a better feel for the ghost’s likely state of mind but, in the interests of dramatic flair, I can understand why Polanski made the changes.

If you have not already seen this film, you should go. That you may not like Polanski as a man should not weigh in the balance. Many men in positions of power are sexual predators. That Polanski may be one of the more guilty does not change the reality that, for more than fifty years, he has consistently made good films.

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