The Tailor of Panama
Directed by John Boorman
Written by John Le Carré, John Boorman, Andrew Davies
Starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis


The Tailor of Panama

First the verdict, then the trial, as I believe Lewis Carroll said; a helpful plan when necessary to save time. The verdict is that "The Tailor of Panama" is witty, entertaining, well acted and directed, and moves with a good sense of pace. The trial transcript, however, brings out some disturbing aspects that undercut the verdict.

Written from John Le Carré's novel (by Le Carré and others) and directed by the experienced if eccentric John Boorman, "The Tailor of Panama" tells the story of Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), tailor to the (post-Noriega) elite of Panama, who finds himself confronted by Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan), disgraced British intelligence officer who has just escaped being fired for a) incompetence in his Madrid posting, and b) shtupping the ambassador's wife while there. Osnard has been posted to Panama, the end of the world, as a last chance to retrieve his career.

He intends to retrieve that career by latching on to poor Harry, who by virtue of his intimate relationship with the country's movers and shakers, can no doubt pass along important information about, for example, a plan to sell the Panama Canal to a Chinese/Taiwanese consortium; and an underground opposition movement determined to stop the sale. He presses Harry harder and harder to deliver the intelligence goods, and Harry delivers.

The fact that these plans are pure fantasy does not stop Andy, who has discovered that Harry is not quite what he seems, and thus can blackmail and bribe him into providing the supposed information. Harry, who refers often to the portrait of his supposed partner in London, Mr. Brathwaite, founder of the store, is actually in debt and is being cozzened by his banker and half his clients. In fact there is no Brathwaite, and the portrait is of Uncle Benny, the shmatte king of downscale London, whose ghost occasionally appears over Harry's shoulder (a lovely cameo by playwright Harold Pinter) to warn Harry about his dealings.

But Andy has sensed victory, retribution, and at least a restoration of his career, and by the time he's done briefing London and Washington about the supposed events in Panama, air strikes are launched, good people - friends of Harry - are lost, and an ultimate darkness has settled over the film. So what we end up with is an uneasy lurching, in script and direction, from light to dark, from farce to, if not tragedy, then to a drama of serious issues. We sit and wish that Le Carré (who also has producer credit) and Boorman had chosen one or the other. It's the kind of spy parody that cries out for the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker touch.

Nevertheless, there are wonderful things here. Rush, perhaps the most versatile actor in films today - think "Shine," "Elizabeth," "Shakespeare in Love," and "Quills" - is elegant in his portrait of the consummate impostor; and Brosnan, playing off his 007 spy caricature, takes every chance to get down and tawdry here. Jamie Lee Curtis, in a thankless role as Harry's wife, has little to do but walk through her scenes, albeit with her customary professionalism.

But as usual with Boorman, he seems incapable of leaving well enough alone. There's always something more he's thrown into the mix, visually or verbally, and as always with him more is too much. Frames are too stuffed with goods and people, and scenes are too closely shot. He overwhelms us with images when he should sit back and trust his material and his actors to carry the film. In an eccentric career of more than thirty years, with high and low points ("Deliverance," "Hope and Glory," "The Emerald Forest," "Excalibur," "Beyond Rangoon," and "Point Blank"), he seems frequently on the verge of greatness, but just as frequently overplays his hand. Yet there is no Boorman film without at least some redeeming interest, and this is no exception.