RETURN OF THE Phantom Menace; Ewan McGregor Is Back in Roman Polanski's Controversial New Thriller the Ghost - a Savage Political Critique of Power-Mad World Leaders That May Haunt George Bush and Tony Blair for Years to Come
Byline: Martyn Palmer
Ewan McGregor is in London on a flying visit en route to Berlin, where he'll be gliding up the red carpet for the world premiere of one of the most contentious movies of the year, Roman Polanski's The Ghost.
The film would always have been controversial, given its plot concerning a former British prime minister facing the threat of war-crimes charges over a Middle East invasion: writer Robert Harris was once close to Tony Blair's inner circle and doesn't deny the story has characters based on Blair, his wife and cabinet ministers. The fictional PM has a former aide who died in sinister circumstances, with the 'ghost' of the title referring both to the dead man and to McGregor's character, who is ghostwriting the PM's autobiography. His research unearths evidence of illegal rendition, torture and possible murder. It's disturbing, and thrilling, stuff.
But the real controversy arose in post-production, when the film's 76-year-old director, Roman Polanski, was arrested on a warrant dating back to his 1977 trial for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. McGregor was in London putting some finishing touches to the sound for The Ghost when he heard the news. 'At first I thought it was a joke,' he says. 'Roman was in a studio in Paris and we were talking to each other and he was on good form. The next day I got a text from the producer saying he'd been arrested. I really did think that he was kidding.
'I felt sad for Roman, because he's an old man who I'm incredibly fond of. I also felt bad for his kids that their dad had been locked up for 23 hours a day. It's an awful trauma for them.'
The Polish film-maker, who made Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, completed the film under house arrest in Switzerland, where he's still waiting to find out whether he'll be extradited to the US. 'In terms of the actual case,' McGregor says, 'it doesn't matter what I think, and I don't believe I'm accountable for it. I don't think that by working with him as a director, I'm condoning what happened 30 years ago.'
The actor predicts, though, that wherever he goes on the long publicity trek for The Ghost, the questions about Polanski will keep coming. 'We've started in France, where it's mild, but I can just see that it's going to be trickier the further away we go. By the time we get to LA, I'll need my helmet on...'
By an eerie coincidence, Polanski's situation is mirrored in the film by that of the prime minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan. Lang can't visit certain countries for fear of being arrested for war crimes. Polanski hasn't been able to return to the US for 30 years due to the outstanding charges against him and was eventually arrested en route to a film festival in Zurich from one of his homes in France.
'A lot of scenes rang true with Roman's situation,' McGregor says. 'There's a scene where Lang is asking "Where can I go?" when he knows he could end up in The Hague to stand trial. He goes through a whole list of possibilities, because he could be extradited from certain countries. And when we were shooting, we were all aware that this is Roman's situation.
'He can go to this country but not that one, or that one. And although we didn't talk to him about it, and Robert wrote the part before he knew Roman was going to direct, it does ring quite loud that it's a reference to his own life. And since he's been arrested, it's amplified. So it's an odd piece in that way.'
The film can clearly be read as a savage critique of Tony Blair and his relationship with the US in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Robert Harris describes the story as 'midway between reality and fiction'. Brosnan's performance isn't an impersonation of Blair, but McGregor believes the message is clear. 'I think there are too many similarities to Blair to ignore it. When you look at the plot, the ghost writer thinks that Lang may have been involved with the CIA, and that he was making decisions for America's benefit. …