Haunted by the past

When Roman Polanski won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival in February for The Ghost Writer, based on Robert Harris’s bestseller, the news was icily received in many quarters. The Hollywood Reporter pointedly remarked: “Whatever the reasons for the jury’s decision, the Silver Bear for Polanski will likely be seen as a signal of solidarity with the director.” He is, of course, awaiting extradition to the United States on the notorious child-sex charge for which he was finally rearrested in Switzerland after 32 years.

For some any praise for his new film is a sort of effective collusion, because of the likelihood that Polanski’s lawyers will ask for their client’s importance as a global artist to be weighed in the balance.

In an era when disgraced celebrities use spin and quasi-contrition to absorb their crime into a career narrative of success through humility—such as Tiger Woods’s strange new “sad face” Nike television ads—Polanski’s silence has been absolute. He has been in a Mexican standoff with the fact of his crime for decades and private legal negotiations with his (now adult) victim are a 100%-submerged iceberg.
Too much is still at stake and he is no more likely to apologise than the pope will say sorry about paedophile priests.

The new film stars Ewan McGregor as the seedy scribbler who gets a job ghostwriting (in fact, ghost-rewriting) the dull memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang, a glassy-eyed Blairish smoothie nicely played by Pierce Brosnan. Lang’s last ghostwriter was found dead in strange circumstances and McGregor (Harris’s adapted screenplay cleverly ensures his character is never actually named) begins to suspect that the manuscript itself holds the answer to his predecessor’s murder and the awful truth about Lang’s powerful friends.

Olivia Williams is excellent as the ex-premier’s exasperated and formidably intelligent spouse. Again, any resemblance to a certain lawyer is purely deliberate. Inconveniently for those who think the director’s crime loathsome—a group that includes me—he has made a very good film, a political satire that is also a terrific conspiracy thriller in the Hitchcock mode, ending with a deadpan black-comic image the master himself might have admired. It has a weird frisson by virtue of its similarity to Polanski’s own situation: just as the director is under house arrest in Switzerland, so a vilified ex-prime minister finds himself unable to leave American soil because of being charged by the international criminal court at The Hague with assisting in the CIA torture of terrorist suspects.

One could almost suspect image management here, were it not for the fact that Lang is not a misunderstood nice guy, but a chump, a creep and a possible war criminal. His incarceration is a barbed satirical comment on Tony Blair’s new confinement to the dinner-engagement circles of neocon celebrity and it also forms the basis of a brilliantly tense and claustrophobic nightmare about the ruthless forces of hidden power, which can only be challenged by the “ghosts” of those they have crushed and intend to crush.

The past will resurface; the repressed will return. Whether or not Polanski fully grasps the moral of his own excellent film remains to be seen.—Guardian News & Media 2010