From The Vault: Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

Shadow play

WHEN Robert Harris's cracking political thriller The Ghost was published in 2007, nobody doubted that the author's former friend, Tony Blair, was the model for Adam Lang: a former British prime minister who embarked on an illegal war in the Middle East and who faces extradition to The Hague, if he leaves the US, for his complicity in the capture and torture of alleged terrorists. The book wasn't a roman-a-clef exactly but pretty damned close to one.

Three tumultuous years later comes a gripping new film of the novel that, Harris says, seems "more like a documentary than a fantasy".

The Ghost Writer -- co-scripted by Harris and director Roman Polanski -- stars Ewan McGregor as the unnamed ghostwriter hired to rescue Lang's memoir after the mysterious death of the original author. Pierce Brosnan also stars as the beleaguered Lang.

Harris -- whose other books include a speculative novel about Nazi Germany, Fatherland -- had started thinking about The Ghost in the early 1990s, but at the time could not make it work. Then, in 2006, he heard about an attempt to bring a private prosecution against Blair for war crimes and the pieces fell into place.

By this point the writer had lost patience with Blair and New Labour. He had been dismayed by Blair's ruthless treatment of his close friend, former government minister Peter Mandelson -- "No one had been more loyal to Tony than Peter, no one was more casually tossed aside," Harris says -- and angered by Blair's decision to follow the US into Iraq.

Blair was no longer the same man the author had shadowed during the 1997 election as a political reporter for The Sunday Times. Harris liked him back then. "He was very normal," he recalls. "He had young children, he took them to school, he had a working wife, he was a sort of aspirational bloke -- clever but not super rich -- and he was recognisably human." The figure who appeared, in January, before the inquiry into Britain's involvement in Iraq was "was like some creature that had been parachuted in from some neo-con planet orbiting Earth, refusing to apologise or express regret [over the loss of life in Iraq], and talking now about the necessity to take on Iran. I thought he looked and sounded not quite human any more, and I think that's the tragedy of power."

In The Ghost, Lang's former foreign minister blames him personally for taking the country to war. Harris, likewise, holds Blair responsible for Britain's involvement in Iraq and all the problems that have flowed from it. Andrew Rawnsley's book The End of the Party "makes it perfectly clear", he says, "that on several occasions George Bush said to Blair, 'You guys don't need to come in on this', and Blair said, 'I was with you at the beginning, I'm with you all the way along.' It doesn't seem to me that we got one scrap of extra kudos in the US or around the world, rather the contrary. Years have been wasted of a Labour government that could have been doing the things it was elected to do, all because of one man."

Harris's fury over the "abdication of British foreign policy to American interests" is, to a large extent, arguably, what powers The Ghost.

"I feel that, more than any single thing, is what appals me looking back," he spits. "You had what was pretty well an aberration of an American administration, and a British Labour government completely lying on its back to this regime strikes me as utterly amazing."

Why this happened is still somewhat hazy, so Harris comes up with his own satirical explanation, involving the CIA. It is meant to be humorous but, Harris says, laughing, "it makes more sense than what actually happened, to be perfectly honest".

It's not just Blair who looms over the film version of The Ghost, however. Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in September last year on 32-year-old sexual assault charges. He is confined to a house in Gstaad while awaiting possible extradition to the US for sentencing. In what must be a film industry first, Polanski completed The Ghost Writer in jail, where he received DVDs from a cutting room in Paris through his lawyers.

"At the end the governor allowed the film editor to come in and work in the prison," Harris says. "Roman had to go to his cell at 4.30 every afternoon, but the Swiss were good about letting him finish the work."

For Polanski, the predicament is just the latest test in an epic life that has encompassed the Holocaust and the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by followers of Charles Manson.

"He always says, 'Worse things have happened to me, as you know,' " says Harris. "He's just a survivor."

Returning to British politics, and speaking before the May election that produced a coalition government, Harris expresses his disillusionment. "They [Britain's governing politicians] are going to be controlled by the White House who in turn are being controlled by something beyond it, and power is just Russian dolls," he says.

Alarmingly, and based on his knowledge of history, he says he believes Britain is in a "pre-revolutionary period". "We're developing a highly educated middle class that's going to be deeply frustrated, unable to get hold of the material benefits that it believes it deserves, and once those people start to lose faith in the system. . ." He pauses suddenly. What does he mean?

"I think the democratic process is broken, it goes far beyond the expenses scandal," he says. "I feel that an era is starting to come to an end and something else is going to come along, simply because the ordinary person has lost control."

Published in The Australian, June 12, 2010

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