Tony Blair is unrecognisable in Roman Polanski's "Ghost"

April 19, 2010
"Yo, Blair"
"Yo, Blair"

In Contested Will, James Shapiro’s just-published book on who wrote Shakespeare (he thinks it was Shakespeare), he quotes from Shakespeare’s Secret, a book for kids by an author called Elise Broach, in which Broach, who doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, writes the following: "As a historian, I don’t find the evidence to be complete enough–yet–to topple the man from Stratford from his literary pedestal. But as a novelist I am more convinced."

There’s a sentence for you—from a woman who can think one thing as a novelist, another as a historian. I couldn’t do it myself, but Robert Harris and Roman Polanski probably could. As a novelist and author of The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris is convinced that Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), also known as Tony Blair, is an empty-headed, personable, good-looking, consummate actor of a politician who also happens to be wildly pro-American. And as a filmmaker, Roman Polanski thinks the same.

So they put that figure at the centre of the film version, and then build around it a fantasy which includes an arraignment before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (the same trope was used in Alastair Beaton’s 2007 TV play, The Trial of Tony Blair); a series of murders of those who discover uncomfortable truths under Lang’s lies; and the final revelation, that his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), or Cherie as she was known, is a CIA agent who has been manipulating him to poodle along behind the US in its evil design to depose a mass murderer.

It’s an exciting film, beautifully shot and it rattles along—not quite as well as the Tom Clancy-inspired Patriot Games (dir. Philip Noyce, 1992), but with steadily building tension and real surprises. If you could tell–because you were led to tell–that Professor Philip Emmett was a nasty piece of work, and so no surprise that he was a member of the CIA, evilly dedicated to protecting western security, the revelation that Cherie had been ordered to seduce, marry and bear children with the British prime minister to keep America safe was a real surprise. Who’d have thought it?

And what do Harris and Polanski think, when they aren’t novelist and film director, but are just thinking people? Do they mean The Ghost Writer as a monitory fable about British politics gone wrong under Blair’s tutelage? Do they think Blair was an empty-headed front man who was duped into doing America’s bidding? Aren’t they having it both ways? As novelist/director, pretty much convinced he was: as sentient citizens, keeping their powder dry.

So I ended up sick with it. Because it’s another brick in the wall of goo which has bound together the bien-pensant consensus on Bush/Blair, seeing one as the dirty dog and the other as the twitching tail. Where’s the creative energy—both Harris and Polanski have lots of it—that might go into grappling with what a tyranny like Saddam’s was?