Take a look at the most successful films of last year and you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually looking a list of bestsellers. Adaptations were everywhere, and you only have to consider the Oscar nominations to see their impact-for example, all of the Best Actress contenders were in films based on books. Indeed, Sandra Bullock’s powerhouse performance in the excellent The Blind Side as Leigh Anne Tuohy, proved to be the dark horse of the awards season, culminating in her Oscar triumph.
At the same time came The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hata kvinnor), based on the first book of Stieg Larsson’s popular trilogy. A Hollywood version is already in the works, but this acclaimed Swedish version captures the dark spirit of the thrillers, with excellent performances from established Swedish star Michael Nyqvist and newcomer Noomi Rapace.
Now comes another European take on the thriller. The Ghost, out on April 16, has a plot about a former Prime Minister being accused of war crimes, a story seemingly ripped straight from the headlines. Author Robert Harris has repeatedly denied that Adam Lang is based on Tony Blair-the author was close to the beleaguered politician around the time of New Labour’s first victory-but the similarities are too strong to be so easily dismissed (and, indeed, the story would lose much of its power without that frisson).
Mr Harris’s book was written to fill in time while he and director Roman Polanski were having difficulty adapting his Pompeii for the big screen, pursuing an idea he’d had years ago about how our leaders are all so isolated from ‘real’ life. When that film finally stalled, the two decided to work on adapting this book instead, and collaborated on the screenplay and the look of the film. For fans of the book, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with a few additions and changes to make it more cinematic.
The plot itself is pretty simple. To say it’s a straightforward thriller is not to do the film down-on the contrary, it’s good to see a film that doesn’t rely on effects or deus ex machina reveals to cover up for a weak plot and characterisation. The Ghost (Ewan McGregor)-who never gets a name-is hired to work on the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), who is holed up in a house off America’s eastern seaboard. When he arrives, he discovers that his predecessor had died-possibly murdered-and is plunged into a story of intrigue and danger. He is also pulled between Lang’s formidable but lonely wife (Olivia Williams) and his frosty but intriguing aide (Kim Cattrall).
All the leads are excellent, especially Miss Williams, and Mr McGregor adds considerable charm to a character who never seems properly defined (my one complaint would be that he never seems sure quite what accent he thinks he’s doing). Anyone who only knows Kim Cattrell from Sex and the City will be surprised by her restrained performance here as well as her flawless English accent. Look out, too, for effective cameos from Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, James Belushi, Robert Pugh and Eli Wallach.
The locations are almost another character-although, for me, they didn’t quite pass for America (Mr Polanski’s legal troubles preventing them from filming there). However, the strong sense of isolation and danger are well served by the windswept beaches and the starkness of the borrowed house.
The film’s release couldn’t come at a better time as the election brings politicians’ actions into sharper focus-whether they like it or not.
The Ghost opens on Friday April 16.