Review: The Tailor Of Panama (2001)

Director: John Boorman


John Le Carré’s novels are well-written pieces of wry humour, taking more pleasure in semantics than overt satire. With The Tailor Of Panama, director/co-writer John Boorman takes the possibility of satire from Le Carré’s prose and runs with it. Many things are lampooned here, from the spy thriller formula to the images of its leading men.

Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush) is a British ex-pat tailor in Panama City at the turn of the millennium, about the time the US handed the canal back to Panama. His past is chequered, and a British spy named Andy Osnard blackmails Pendel for information or else he may reveal said shady past. In the novel, Osnard is an overweight boor. In the film, he’s Pierce Brosnan. The shocking thing about Osnard is how much he and the character of James Bond actually have in common. Both like their alcohol and their women and are unbelievably smooth. The role of Osnard gives Brosnan the chance to swear and be more cold-blooded than the dapper Bond would permit; Osnard’s loyalties lie with himself, not her Majesty’s secret service. Likewise, the well-spoken and solid Rush becomes a blathering little worm who makes up lies when he can’t get any juicy gossip out of his monied clientele. The character of Pendel, covering up a jailbird past, could have easily become annoying, but Rush keeps him dignified and just the right side of panicky.

Just as Le Carré relished toying with Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man In Havana’, so Boorman enjoys toying with spy staples, starting with the little lies that can cause international incidents. The fact that the film is filled with duplicitous characters is both an interesting twist and a distancing force; as Pendel says, Panama is “Casablanca without heroes.” When Pendel is forced to spy on the only truly innocent party in the film, namely his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), there’s little to sympathize with. Even a noble figure like Brendan Gleeson’s washed-up revolutionary Abraxas is a little too rough around the edges to be liked. The first half of the film is filled with witty banter and sly glares, so it’s a pity that as Pendel’s lies get bigger, the film has to give way to bigger action and military intervention later on. Boorman seems uncomfortable with the demands the script (which he co-wrote with Le Carré and Andrew Davies), and the final third feels forced and rushed. Still, The Tailor Of Panama boasts great style and atmosphere and enough subverted personas to make you do a double-take or two.