Sunday 11 April 2010

Deathtraps (ST 18/04/10)

The Ghost (15) 128 mins **
Cemetery Junction (15) 95 mins ****
City of Life and Death (15) 132 mins *****

The Ghost has a fine haunted house to recommend it, if little else. Entrapment has proved central to Roman Polanski’s life and work - from the Warsaw ghetto through Repulsion and The Tenant to his enforced seclusion in Switzerland - so it follows his latest should unfold within a modernist cinderblock cube on the desolate Massachusetts coast. It’s both retreat and mausoleum - the next evolution of the castles-in-the-sand of Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and Macbeth - with shutters that descend at the merest hint of a security breach: the idea, presumably, is to offer us a glimpse inside the political machine.

Adapted by Robert Harris from his own bestseller, the film is strongest on ominous suggestion. Drowning was the fate of the last man trying to order the memoirs of Blairish ex-PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan); the ghost writer’s replacement (Ewan McGregor) is an innocent - he knows nothing about politics, which gets him the gig - who simply finds out too much. Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams, some distance foxier than Cherie) acknowledges our hero must be wondering what he’s let himself in for; soon, McGregor’s soaking in a chi-chi wooden bathtub that doesn’t half resemble a coffin.

In fact, it’s the film that stagnates, falling subject to Harris’s lukewarm-potato plotting, and exactly the pacing you’d expect from a 76-year-old filmmaker trying to stave off deportation; the final hour lacks any momentum whatsoever. Compared to the credible conspiracies of the Bourne franchise, or the modems and piercings of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Ghost suddenly resembles the kind of creakily analogue B-thriller that might have emerged a quarter-century ago, with Michael Caine in the McGregor role.

The recent Green Zone, whose politics were no less fantastical, climaxed with the sending of an e-mail; before The Ghost’s droll punchline - more of an afterthought, really, like Chinatown replayed by a director whose mind and camera aren’t really on the task - the narrative labours towards its conclusion with a slip of paper being passed between the guests at a lavish drinks reception. It takes FOREVER, and since the information it holds bears zero basis on reality as we know it, prompts the immediate question: so what?

In everything from its soundtrack choices to its widescreen vistas, Cemetery Junction feels instantly more cinematic than The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais’s previous directorial outing. It’s doubly impressive, given the camera is trained on Reading circa 1973: a sinkhole, as Gervais and co-collaborator Stephen Merchant have it, into which countless lives seem fated to disappear. Among them, three teens: wild one Bruce (Tom Hughes); socially inept Snork (Jack Doolan); and Freddie (the thoughtful Christian Cooke), obliged to sell life insurance to the town’s living dead.

What distinguishes Cemetery Junction from any American Graffiti -style antecedents is something culturally specific: in probing the faultlines opening up in the 1970s between management and workforce, young dudes and old farts, it comes to observe the terrible state of Britain’s homes and marriages. Gervais casts himself as Freddie’s dad, a worn-down angle grinder who buries his scrap in the backyard; Emily Watson is touching as a neglected wife who wants more for her daughter (the increasingly adorable Felicity Jones) than wifely subservience.

Showaddywaddy are making way for Slade, we sense, and while Gervais and Merchant display understandable sympathy for the new generation - their generation - kicking down the gates, Cemetery Junction’s rich pathos stems from its awareness of those being left behind. We’re offered a masterclass in understated screenwriting (and acting) during a retirement dinner where one aging functionary is rewarded for his service with a derisory fruitbowl and the boss (Ralph Fiennes, rigorously funny) forgetting his wife’s name.

Lest this sound overly sombre, I should point out there are also spacehoppers, and jokes about Elton John’s nuptials; there’s even a Karl Pilkington cameo, for those inclined to look. Most crucially, the sincerity its creators have expressed in interviews and sustained throughout their best small-screen work has at last begun to filter into their wider endeavours. One could well imagine bored teenagers in today’s Reading seeing Cemetery Junction and being stirred to become directors themselves - or at least start recording their own podcasts.

Finally, a too-brief mention for Lu Chuan’s stunning City of Life and Death, a near-Spielbergian evocation of the Rape of Nanking - shot in atmospheric, Schindlerish monochrome, with Private Ryan-like combat scenes - that goes beyond what Spielberg would show to deliver a wholly unsentimental account of the sorriest chapter in Sino-Japanese relations. It’s not a history lesson so much as a dolorous, often chilling testimony: a steady parade of horrors elevated to the status of unforgettable cinema by a profound directorial sobriety.


  1. I'm at a four-star place on City -- brilliant for an hour, but it does get a little relentless. (No doubt they said the same about the Rape of Nanking.) And you get out the best stuff in CJ, but not the iffy stuff: what's with the lame-ass "let's go out clubbing!" scene? Given that the whole film's been premised on what a backwater this is meant to be, where have they been hiding those Amazonian Supremes the whole time? Where on earth is this? I thought it was symptomatic of a movie with its heart in the right place, but a bit too concerned to give us a rocking good time, however at odds that might be with the depression and sense of waste it wants as its starting points.

  2. That scene is, agreed, the worst in the film: who knew Northern Soul reached Reading before it did the Wigan Casino? By that point, though, I was high on the sincerity and heart, and prepared to go with the flow. (A Jimi Mistry cameo might have been pushing it, though.)

    By the way, I think you're going to like "Date Night" more than you might be expecting - you get not just the Scruffalo, but James Franco, too...

  3. Yay! It's a great year for Scruffalo fans. His vegetable-farming restaurateur in The Kids Are All Right is pretty much the best thing ever. And Franco at the moment... I mean dang.