Agreeing on a moments notice to fix the memoirs of former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Brosnan), a ghost writer (McGregor) discovers his predecessor was murdered having unearthed one secret too many...
While we should never let outside factors cloud our judgment, it is hard to ignore the controversial background to Roman Polanski’s latest film. No, not the moral fricassée involving the director’s past indiscretions, but whether Adam Lang, ex-Prime Minister of ten shining years with a shimmering grin and a special relationship with the Americans, might just, care of Robert Harris’ pulpy thriller, be referring to Tony Blair. Which would make Olivia Williams’ black-bobbed, haughty Ruth Lang Cherie. In truth, you’d be hard-pressed to miss the link, and given the film’s release comes soon after Blair’s own wrestling with past indiscretions at the Chilcot Enquiry, we’ll take it as read.
This proves something of a cross for the film to bear; both playing the tabloidy game and keeping the plot from teetering into absurdity. Sensibly, events are focused around Ewan McGregor’s dissolute ghost writer, sent on a fat cheque to work on Lang’s waffly memoirs just as the ex-PM is threatened with war crimes charges for Middle Eastern abuses. When he discovers what happened to the last writer, a political aide of Lang’s washed up on a nearby beach, he realises all is not kosher with the ex-PM’s past and he could be next for the briny.
The patter is more Agatha Christie than Alfred Hitchcock — follow the clues to the shocking revelation — suspenseful and talky rather than explosive (it barely musters a car chase). As you would expect, Polanski has drawn out strong turns from McGregor and Brosnan (echoing rather than aping Blair) and an excellent one from Olivia Williams. And all this pottering about in coded secrets comes with a suitably moody veneer: plenty of rain-lashed long shots of grey-grim Atlantic beaches, and the angular Cape Cod palace Lang has holed up in has a sterile, unhomely beauty — Polanski’s trademark use of architecture as psychological mirror is one of the few personal touches. It’s worth remembering that Polanski finished editing the film while confined to his Swiss chalet under house arrest. Cruelly ironic, given that from Repulsion to Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski has transformed homes into prisons.
But for every flourish there comes a deflating feeling. Even with its Blair-baiting, nothing feels risky. Recalling the blaze of Polanski’s former glories, how formulaic these moves seem in the shadow of Chinatown. As when Coppola made The Rainmaker, perfectly adequate as it was, there’s a sense that Polanski is comfortable plying his expertise: a decent professional job, untroubled by the virtues of art.
Its decent and intriguing enough, but the films director has left the fireworks to his private life.