The Tailor of Panama

USA/Ireland, 2001. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Leonor Varela, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack, Harold Pinter, Daniel Radcliffe, Lola Boorman, David Hayman
Writers: Andrew Davies, John Le Carré & John Boorman, based on the novel by John Le Carré
Music: Shaun Davey
Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot
Producer: John Boorman
Director: John Boorman


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

B ased on book sales, novelists John Le Carré and Tom Clancy are the contemporary masters of the spy genre, but beyond that, they have little in common. Clancy, a verbose American-born English literature major, writes tech- and jargon-heavy tomes that have been effectively brought to the screen in movies like The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. His is a romanticized view that focuses on the competitive cat and mouse of espionage--more realistic that Ian Fleming's Bond novels, certainly, but not much more.

Le Carré, in contrast, actually served in the British Foreign Service. Influenced by novelist Graham Greene, Le Carré is concerned more with the human beings who play the game than the game itself. He has a decidedly unromantic view--for him, espionage is a tawdry business that consumes people's souls. Le Carré's perspective has been brought to film in movies like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Russia House (an underrated film in desperate need of an expanded director's cut). The latest Le Carré screen adaptation is The Tailor of Panama; a story that Le Carré freely acknowledges was inspired by Greene's satirical Our Man in Havana (which itself became a film in 1960, directed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness).
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The spy at the center of this story is Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), a jaded British agent whose indiscreet womanizing has gotten him drummed out of cozy assignments in Europe. Charming but vulgar, mean, and unscrupulous, Osnard is like James Bond with Tourrette's Syndrome, saying all the things that 007 at most implies. Freed from the Bond straightjacket, Brosnan plays Osnard with zest. "You're right, it was open," he says to a female colleague (Catherine McCormack) he wants to seduce, "Just tight from lack of use." He is ostensibly referring to a safe, but there is no mistaking his meaning. If only Brosnan would bring to Bond just a hint of Osnard's nastiness.

Osnard's new assignment is in Panama, where the Canal has just been handed over by the United States to the Panamanian Government, which, according to one character, consists of "30 ruling families, their lawyers, and their bankers." Not much has changed since Papa Bush invaded Panama to remove Noriega. "When the Americans took out Noriega, they got Ali Baba, but they missed the forty thieves." Things are so bad that the impoverished locals refer to Panama City's luxurious business district and its 85 banks as "the Cocaine Towers and the Laundrettes." Osnard is stationed in Panama because, as Osnard himself sardonically puts it, his superiors "are concerned to know that the world's biggest trade gateway isn't going to fall into the wrong hands…now that it's in the wrong hands."

Osnard's first task in Panama is to put together a network of contacts. His first target is Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a meek British tailor who dresses Panama's elite. Osnard reasons that Pendel must hear things and know things, things he doesn't even know he knows. As Pendel, Academy Award™-winner Rush displays impressive range by being the antithesis of his Marquis de Sade in Quills: weak, deferential, and timid.Rush and Brosnan

Using a combination of bribery and threats, Osnard soon has Pendel under his control. But, like Jim Wormold in Our Man in Havana, Pendel has a gift for storytelling. Eager to please, he weaves tall tales about a Silent Opposition led by his local friends, drunken former dissident Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson) and scarred death squad victim Marta (Leonor Varela). Osnard is delighted to run with Pendel's outrageous fictions, as they make him look good--and eventually they can make him rich, too. It's not long before the British government is funneling funds to the Silent Opposition. But, as one might expect, Pendel's stories eventually get him and his unsuspecting wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), who works for the Canal Commission, into trouble.

The Tailor of Panama is co-written and directed by John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory), whose skills are often superior to his choice of material. The scenes are precisely choreographed, with actors and camera simultaneously, but not necessarily synchronously, in motion. The editing is rhythmic and musical, keeping the story chugging along despite some obvious weaknesses in the plot, which are doubtless caused by the cuts made out of necessity during the process of adapting a novel to the screen. Osnard's superiors gobble up Pendel's outrageous stories all too easily, and one should well wonder why Osnard even needs Pendel, when he could just as easily make up the stories himself. Partially as a result of these flaws, the ending doesn't pack much of an emotional punch, even though it is thematically appropriate and consistent with the characters. As for the occasional appearance of the ghost of Pendel's mentor (Harold Pinter) to berate and advise Pendel, it's intrusive, distracting, and unnecessary--it plain ol' doesn't work.

More a satire than a thriller, The Tailor of Panama is an admirable effort, showing us the absurdities of the espionage business and the difficulty of distinguishing good guys from bad guys. But it does lack something that all espionage stories, satirical or otherwise, should have: focus and suspense.

Review © September 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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