Still haunted by The Ghost of Blair

Polanski’s film of Harris’s novel shows that Blair-bashers can’t quite explain their anger with New Labour.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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The Ghost is a film a little too haunted by reality.

In the first instance, the knowledge that The Ghost’s director Roman Polanski is currently holed up in a Swiss jail awaiting possible extradition to the US to face decades-old sexual assault charges can, if you let it, insinuate its way into the viewing experience. The fact that he edited the film while incarcerated only adds to the intrigue. Maybe The Ghost captures something of Polanski’s state of mind? Perhaps it articulates, at some level, the vision of a man, who like its key protagonist, the ex-British PM Adam Lang, has been exiled and demonised?

All of which is a bit distracting. Given that Polanski turned to Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost almost as an afterthought, following the collapse of their original project Pompei due to the screenwriters’ strike, there is definitely a risk of reading too much of Polanski’s biography into this adaptation. But in the second case of real life haunting fiction, the spectre can’t so easily be dismissed.

The Ghost of the endlessly playful title, is an unnamed ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor), commissioned to write the memoirs of the former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) following the mysterious death of his former ghost writer, Mike McAra. The thing about Lang is that he is more than a little reminiscent of former PM Tony Blair. He was swept into power on a wave of personal popularity – ‘everyone voted for him; he wasn’t a politician, he was a craze’, says the ghost. He then led Britain into a massively unpopular war in Iraq. From which, judging by his exile in the bleak New England winter, he is yet to recover. He also has a super-smart, put-upon wife, played by Olivia Williams, which might or might not be Cherie Blair.

The Ghost takes this partial mirroring of Blair’s own trajectory that one step further – into full-on anti-Iraq War fantasy. For Lang is not only vilified by those who were once besotted with him – he is also due to face trial before The Hague War Crimes Tribunal for approving so-called torture flights. Into this volatile, conspiratorial mix steps the innocent hack abroad, tasked with the job of ghosting Lang’s memoirs, and unwittingly discovering the truth of Lang’s rise and fall.

What saves this from being a clumsy exercise in Blair-bashing is the lightness of touch. From a decent, playful thriller, Polanski has produced a noirish, almost comic thriller. Helped by Alexandre Desplat’s quirky, retro score, not to mention the twisting, turning narrative, The Ghost refuses to take itself too seriously. Despite the subject matter, despite the director’s own situation, this is no brooding, high-minded exploration of corruption, of innocence lost. It’s a playful, witty pastiche.

This may come as a surprise to anyone expecting the evisceration of New Labour’s deposed, now despised, prince. Especially so given that Harris himself was once a close friend of the Blairs up until the Iraq War. Talking of the novel, Harris explained that it was born of ‘a sort of disillusion and a sort of anger that Britain went along with something which seemed so, even at the time, to be a bridge too far and rather illogical’. This angry incredulity is expressed in an exchange the ghost writer has with an old man he meets while out for an abortive bike ride. ‘He seems intelligent’, the old man says of Lang, ‘so why’d he get get mixed up with that damn fool in the White House?’. The ghost’s reply echoes the demand for a thousand inquiries on the part of disillusioned New Labour supporters: ‘That’s what everyone wants to know.’

And that’s the strange part, the revealing part, if you like. The Ghost’s focus on a Blair-like figure as the source of the souring, the corruption of that bright New Labour, New World dawn in 1997 refuses to yield a sufficient explanation for what went wrong. As much as Harris, an author once enamoured with Blair but now disenchanted, wants to pin the downfall of New Labour on Blair, and the decision to invade Iraq, it just doesn’t quite make sense. It’s a ‘bridge too far’; it’s ‘illogical’. Or rather, if it is logical, if Blair-cum-Lang really was the central reason for what went wrong, then it must play itself out as an incredible conspiracy, a Manchurian candidate for the anti-Iraq War generation.

This, to an extent, is what The Ghost does. And in doing so with its tongue often wedged firmly in its cheek, it not only satirises Blair and his cronies, but Blair-bashing itself.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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