Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie endings ever

And how will Roman Polanski's The Ghost compare?

It's been a while since anyone discussed Roman Polanski as a film-maker, but let me put aside for now such words as "extradition" and "house arrest" in order to proclaim the giddy brilliance of his new thriller, The Ghost, which premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival.

The picture is adapted from Robert Harris's scurrilous novel about a ghostwriter (played by Ewan McGregor), hired to produce the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is accused of war crimes. Honestly, how do writers come up with such ludicrous and far-fetched stories?

I'll be reviewing the film when it opens in the spring, but let me say in advance that the ending is an absolute humdinger. (No need to avert your eyes: when it comes to surrendering secrets, I'm like Jack Straw at the Chilcot inquiry.) The final pages of the original novel were satisfying enough, but Polanski has conjured a closing image that stays true to Harris's prose while elevating it to the realms of cinematic poetry.

The director, you will recall, has form in this area. His creepy 1976 horror-comedy The Tenant closed on a devastating final image -- the screaming mouth of a figure wrapped in bandages. And it was Polanski who famously jettisoned the upbeat conclusion of Chinatown favoured by the screenwriter, Robert Towne.

The original script ended with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) killing her revolting father, Noah Cross (John Huston), by whom she had borne a daughter. "You knew that Evelyn was going to have to stand trial and you knew that she wasn't going to be able to tell why she did it," Towne explained.

"But it was bitter-sweet in the sense that one person, at least, wasn't tainted -- the child."

Polanski was having none of it. In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski (later revealed, irony of ironies, to have been ghost-written), the director said: "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, and not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die. Its dramatic impact would be lost unless audiences left their seats with a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all . . .

"To this day Towne feels my ending is wrong; I am equally convinced that his more conventional ending would have seriously weakened the picture."

Good call. No, great call. Towne observed correctly that Polanski's ending "was like the tunnel at the end of the light".

It's a cert for one of the greatest movie endings of all time. But here is a handful of unsung sign-offs that deserve some love:

Brighton Rock (1947)

Admirers of the Boulting brothers' film of Graham Greene's novel, co-scripted by Greene himself (with Terrence Rattigan), tend to turn up their noses at the altered ending, in which Rose never discovers Pinkie's hatred of her -- the vinyl record on which he has recorded his malevolent message has a scratch on it, so she stays happy in her delusion as the needle gets stuck.

Greene saw it as a compromise, but a clever one: "Anybody who wanted a happy ending would feel that they had had a happy ending," he said. "Anybody who had any sense would know that the next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message."

"But is the film version really softer than the original?" wondered the novelist Jake Arnott. "It has always struck me that it is much more cruel. Rose's horror is simply postponed." It'll be interesting to see how things are wrapped up in the forthcoming second adaptation, starring Sam Riley as Pinkie and Helen Mirren as Ida, which opens later this year.

Before Sunset (2004)

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the garrulous romantics of Before Sunrise, meet again nine years later. He's married with kids now; she has a boyfriend. After 80 minutes of walking and talking around Paris, he ends up back at her apartment.

"Baby, you're gonna miss that plane," she tells him. He agrees she's right. Cue fade out -- possibly the most tantalising fade-out, in fact, in all of cinema.

Limbo (1999)

The over-praised John Sayles wrote and directed this oddity, which starts as a tentative romance between two middle-aged loners and darkens to become a cruel thriller. I still can't make up my mind if I like the ending but the fact that it still bothers me 11 years after seeing it surely counts for something.

It's not a widely seen film, so I'll hold back on the spoilers, apart from saying that the picture ends with all the jarring suddenness of an emergency stop.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

River Phoenix, as a narcoleptic hustler, has passed out in the middle of a country road. In extreme wide-shot, his unconscious body is lifted into a car by a stranger. The car drives off. Cue "The Old Main Drag", the Pogues' finest hour. A perfect finish to an erratic film.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution