A former thug tries to put his past behind him in the debut film of writer/director Anthony Z. James, who has a future ahead of him.
Ghost (Or Ex-Con, as it’s been titled in some countries) was the film I watched on Father’s Day this year, and that turned out to be more apt than I could have expected. Anthony Mark Streeter (seen previously in Dominic Brunt’s Bait) plays Tony, out of prison for the first time in many years. Ghost presents Tony’s first free day, largely spent finding his feet again in the company of his son Conor (Nathan Hamilton), rebuilding that relationship and also the relationships with his estranged wife Val (Emmy Happisburgh) and former boss Dom (Russell Barnett). Like many fathers, Tony is caught between conflicting commitments; and like many fathers Ghost has an equal measure of good and bad points. One or two, unfortunately, are downright stupid.
Let me see if I can lay out a couple of good points first. On the surface, Ghost is a “gritty” British gangster flick: but don’t let that fool you into expecting cheeky rogues, smooth wit, or blazing guns. Anthony Z. James directs a film about people, not their crimes, in patient contemplation. Perhaps squeezing everything into one day was a mistake, as the volume of content to this film does belie its unhurried pace; a week could have been more realistic. But that slow pace does reflect Tony’s initial mood when coming out into the world after his time inside: I couldn’t say whether it’s down to nerves or relishing each moment, but he certainly reacquaints himself with London and the people he knows one tentative step at a time.
The atmosphere throughout Ghost is thoughtful and studied; another success of the feature debut director. There are a couple of truly tense scenes, and James did well to lead into the change of tone as he did; neither attempting too much tension nor flipping on the fear like a switch. The music from Nikolaj Polujanov (another debut) helped with that a great deal, staying out of the way or adding depth as the scenes demand.
Ghost is all about its (primarily male) characters; some more well-drawn than others. Tony and Conor are pretty basic characters, with just enough to them to escape being two dimensional: Tony wants to be a new man now that he’s free, and Conor wants to be his own man. Tony is shaped by and cannot escape from his past; and Conor has perhaps been influenced by growing up without a fatherly influence. “Toxic masculinity” is a phrase that’s been used about these characters, but I’m not sure I see it in Tony, and it’s easy to wonder whether Conor might have presented it less if his mother had been a stronger character. Val’s character, unfortunately, is barely written at all; not because she is saved until near the end of the film, but because she is given a dreadful u-turn which is so unbelievable as to almost put one off the whole film. Almost. The gangsters (the boss Dom, and his Henchmen) are all tropes, barely deserving the phrase “two-dimensional”. The one interesting character who falls in between, neither a cliché nor well drawn, is Kat (Severija Bielskyte), Conor’s sometime girlfriend: she is an unusual choice and thereby makes Conor a little more interesting, but she is largely there to trigger unfounded jealousy and confusion on Conor’s part.
The cast would have been much more successful if their acting overall was as good as Streeter’s (his face and his posture delivered more than everyone else put together), but to be fair the acting talent across the board would have been more apparent if the writing was better. James was responsible for writing, producing, and directing Ghost, and although there is some skill to be seen in all three of those, his strength is in directing. The story overall is insightful and actually interesting, but the dialogue stilted throughout, and some decisions (a major one in particular) inexplicable.
The production is just as patchy: on one hand, it’s impressive that the film was shot over just a couple of weeks and purely on iPhone; but on the other hand, iPhones have produced better results. The outdoor filming is simply wonderful, with lovely use of London cityscapes and alleys alike, and yet the indoor scenes are either careless or cheap. The sound doesn’t work for those either, making all the indoor scenes feel something like business training videos.
I’m glad I watched Ghost, and despite the few eye-rolling moments, I never once fought to get my finger away from that off button. It gets half marks because I’ve seen low budget films made so much better (perhaps James would do better with a stronger team around him), but no less than that because it is full of potential. I’m glad I watched Ghost because I’ll remember where this auteur came from when he makes something great.
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Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.