John Boorman’s spirited adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1996 novel, “The Tailor of Panama,” is a stylish, sardonic addition to the spy genre. Pic has class to spare, with Pierce Brosnan toplining as a British agent with the superficial charm of 007 but lacking even a trace of moral scruples, and Geoffrey Rush giving another ace performance as a British resident of Panama who gets caught up in espionage. Columbia will have to position the film carefully in the marketplace, however, because this post-Cold War tale of intrigue and treachery is not an action-adventure but a film for adults who appreciate the wry humor and irony brought to it by Boorman and Le Carre (who co-scripted and exec produced). There should be sufficient audiences worldwide who will embrace this classy, articulate and richly humorous film to make it a mid-range box office success.
Casting of Brosnan, successful as it is, is something of a two-edged sword. On the plus side, the actor brings with him evocations of James Bond which, since he plays a much less successful and less scrupulous British agent, allows for plenty of insider humor. On the down side, audiences expecting a Bond-like adventure will be bitterly disappointed.
Prologue set in London establishes Brosnan’s Andy Osnard as a disreputable but charming member of MI6 whose habits of seducing the wives and mistresses of British ambassadors and running up hefty gambling debts hasn’t endeared him to his boss (David Hayman). He’s banished to the backwater of Panama and told to check for money laundering and drug trafficking while serving out his time. As lazy as he is opportunistic, Osnard immediately decides to sub-contract one of the 200 resident British citizens to feed him the information he requires, and settles on snobbish Harry Pendel (Rush). Latter’s upper-class tailor’s shop, Braithwaite & Pendel, is a touch of Saville Row in the tropics, where anyone who is anyone in Panama gets their suits custom made, even if they don’t always pay their bills.
Harry is happily married to Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), an American who works as assistant to the Panamanian director of the canal, and he’s the father of two delightful children (his son is played by the future screen Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe). But he is not quite what he seems. Though he claims to have operated a tailor’s establishment in London with his late partner, he in fact has never been anywhere near Saville Row, having learned the art of tailoring while in prison for arson.
Nevertheless, he has the skills and charm to impress the locals, providing his customers with the very best. (“That was Mr. Connery’s choice,” he notes, proudly, of a particular piece of cloth, one of the film’s many in-jokes.)
But Harry is deeply in debt, his investment in a farm proving unwise. So when Osnard dangles the bait of large sums of money in exchange for information about the bankers, lawyers and political leaders of the country, he eagerly agrees to cooperate. Eventually, he starts inventing things to impress Osnard, claiming, quite falsely, that his friend Mickie (Brendan Gleeson) and his assistant, Marta (Leonor Varela), both former members of the anti-Noriega resistance, are still members of a revolutionary group known as the Silent Opposition.
This is duly reported, via Osnard, back to London, and inevitably the demand comes back for even more information. Harry now invents a plan by Panama’s leaders to sell the Canal to the highest bidder, perhaps China. This revelation sets alarm bells ringing in London and Washington, with dramatic results.
In mood, “The Tailor of Panama” is reminiscent of the Graham Greene novels “The Quiet American” and, especially, “Our Man in Havana,” both of which were filmed in the 1950s. The film is quite caustic in its attitude toward the British and American foreign policy makers, who, it suggests, are inherently suspicious that a small country like Panama can handle the responsibility of the vital canal, and don’t need much pushing to decide to claim the waterway back.
Brosnan brings a rather steely charm to the role of the decidedly untrustworthy Osnard, who sets out to make as much money as possible for himself on the side and to seduce every woman who crosses his path. There’s an underlying nastiness to the character that Brosnan subtly conveys. Rush is terrific as Harry, a dreamer who doesn’t realize what effect his frantic efforts to earn money for his fantastic stories will have on his friends. Curtis is classy as Harry’s loving but troubled wife, and Catherine McCormack is sultry as an embassy staffer who warms to Osnard’s seductive charms. Brendan Gleeson, so good in the leading role in Boorman’s previous film, “The General,” is touching as the frequently drunken, burnt-out revolutionary Mickie. Supporting cast is fine down the line, with Harold Pinter appearing briefly but amusingly as Harry’s late partner and still the voice of his conscience.
Pic is far more humorous than Le Carre’s novel. In a stand-out scene, Osnard, seeking to have a private conversation away from prying eyes and possible bugs, forces Harry to dance with him in a gay bar to the music of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Pic is also full of cinematic references, including a couple to “Casablanca” and even one to “The Full Monty.” The ending of the novel has been modified and is now far more upbeat, but this doesn’t seriously damage the film — which isn’t surprising, given the author’s strong presence behind the scenes.
Boorman is in top form here, apparently reveling in the witty material. He has, as always, been well served by his technical crew. In Philippe Rousselot’s third film with the director, the French d.p.’s widescreen photography evocatively explores the rarely used location of Panama with its famous bridge across the canal and its high-rise buildings, derisively referred to as “Laundromats” because many of them house the country’s 85 banks. Interiors shot at Ardmore Studios in Ireland have been seamlessly integrated.