The Tailor of Panama
Screenplay : Andrew Davies and John Le Carré and John Boorman (based on the novel by John Le Carré)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Pierce Brosnan (Andy Osnard), Geoffrey Rush (Harry Pendel), Jamie Lee Curtis (Louisa Pendel), Leonor Varela (Marta), Brendan Gleeson (Mickie Abraxas), Harold Pinter (Uncle Benny), Catherine McCormack (Francesca)
Pierce Brosnan is best known today for playing James Bond, the world's most famous British superspy, in the last three installments of that long-running series. In John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama, he again plays a British spy, but not one you'd expect. His Andy Osnard, who at the beginning of the film is sent to Panama in exile, is a devious, callous, crude, greedy, sex-obsessed, self-centered scoundrel with no conscience and no qualms about using other people for his own gains. Brosnan obviously relished the chance to play against type, and his performance as Osnard is measured in its stately viciousness. Those same classical good looks and sly charm that make him work so well on-screen as 007 are inverted to cruel purposes.
Based on the 1996 novel by John Le Carré, The Tailor of Panama is set against the backdrop of the international politics swirling around the recent American turnover of the Panama canal to the Panamanian government. It's a post-Cold War black comedy about a corrupt world in which the kind of spying that made James Bond world famous no longer has a place. The casting of Brosnan as Osnard is a delicious sleight of hand, but there is also something vaguely tragic about it, as if this is a sign of what would happen to Bond if he didn't have the fictional world of movie intrigue and black-and-white morality to sustain him.
When Osnard arrives in Panama City, he has nothing to do but make trouble because he obviously has no interest in his diplomacy post at the British Embassy. Early on he sets his sights on Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a British expatriate who runs a fine tailor shop that outfits all the wealthiest and most powerful people in Panama, from cocaine runners to the president. Thus, Osnard assumes, he's a person who knows people because, as Pendel himself says, many powerful men treat their tailors like confessors--telling them all sorts of things they probably shouldn't while they are being fitted with a new jacket. Of course, when we see scenes of Pendel actually fitting the president of Panama, we see that this is just one in a series of extravagant lies.
Osnard knows a secret about Pendel's past that gives him leverage on the tailor, essentially giving Pendel no choice but to work with him. Osnard wants information, any information that he can use to his own advantage. Pendel obliges by telling him all kinds of inflated stories about politics and power, resistance fighters and underground networks. As it turns out, just about everything Pendel says is a lie, but Osnard takes him at his word and sets in motion of chain of events that will lead to his walking away with $10 million and the American army headed to Panama on a bombing mission. Oh, how little white lies can balloon up to potential catastrophe in heated situations.
John Boorman (The General) takes his time setting up the characters and situations in The Tailor of Panama. This is a postmodern spin on old-school spy thrillers, long on witty dialogue and double-crossings and short on violence and car chases. The story unfolds slowly--perhaps too slowly in some portions--but this is because Boorman realizes that what makes the film tick is not the elaborate schemes concocted by the characters, but the characters themselves. He gives us a large cast, including Brendan Gleeson as Mickie Abraxas, an ex-resistance fighter against Noriega who is now a bitter, stumbling drunk, and Jamie Lee Curtis as Louisa, Pendel's wife who works for the canal and is thus viewed by Osnard as a potential gold mine of information.
However, the core of the film is the relationship between Osnard and Pendel, one that is based entirely on coercion and lies, yet has a strange vibrancy because the two men use each other so well. Osnard and Pendel could not be any different--a callous spy looking for trouble and a dignified tailor who is trying to escape his past--yet they seem almost drawn to each other. One can't help but feel that Pendel, despite his resistance, gets a rush out of working for Osnard, even when that means sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night and snapping pictures of his wife's business papers. But, at the same time, one has to wonder whether the rush is from the chance to play spy or his success in constantly deceiving Osnard.
©2001 James Kendrick