The Tailor of Panama

 

Laura Clifford 

Robin Clifford 

British MI-6 agent Andrew Osnard (Pierce Brosnan) really screwed up his last assignment and is reassigned to the armpit of the Foreign Service - Panama. Trying to make the best of a bad assignment, Andrew recruits the local tailor to the Panamanian elite, Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), for information and unleashes a series of events that may lead to America taking back the Canal in the John Le Carre story, "The Tailor of Panama."

Robin:
Andrew Osnard is the antithesis of the always-honorable James Bond character that we have viewed, for many years, as the quintessential example of the British secret agent. Brosnan, himself, has made a career playing the legendary 007, and takes a dark departure with his spy who is left out in the cold by his bosses for his previous "indiscretions." Andrew is the kind of suave, yet slimy, guy who can seize opportunity when he sees it. That's when he has the idea to bring Harry into his control and milk the tailor for information about his well-to-do clients, to get the pulse of Panama, so to speak.

Harry has built his business on a Saville Row reputation and has become quite well off as the clothier to Panama's stars. But, a bad, costly investment in a failing farm forces Harry to act as an info-for-pay resource for Andrew. To get enough money to cover his debts, Harry invents a story about the country's "Silent Opposition," led by a former Noriega foe, Michelangelo Abraxus (Brendan Gleeson). Mickey, Harry reports to Andrew, is the new hope of the Panamanian people to end the government's continued repression. The only trouble is, Mickey, Harry's good friend, isn't told about the deception. As the money starts to roll in, the indebted tailor perpetuates his lies with even bigger ones, digging himself in deeper and deeper into a quagmire.

Andrew's controllers in Britain aren't satisfied with Harry's reports and demand hard proof before giving their tailor a penny more. Desperate, Harry involves his own wife, Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), assistant to the manager of the entire Canal, without her knowledge. As things spiral out of Harry's control, he sees everything he has so carefully built for so many years come crashing around him.

As I watched the first two thirds of "The Tailor of Panama" I could not help but to compare it to the 1960 Alec Guinness spy spoof, "Our Man in Havana." Both films are about a hapless everyman who is drawn into the spy game. But, since there is nothing, really, to spy on, he invents intrigue and develops a fake spy network. In both films, the hero's intentions are the best, but go wrong nonetheless. Both start out whimsically, but only "Our Man in Havana" sustains it. Le Carre's story departs as it moves away from its early whimsy and takes on a dramatic tone that reps a sudden change of direction for the story.

This is where "The Tailor of Panama" runs into problems. The light-hearted nature of the bulk of the film is smothered by the serious episodes that represents Harry's final fall, losing him nearly everything he has worked for - including his beloved wife. This sharp turn in the story occurs very late in the film and is handled perfunctorily, making the viewer shift gears abruptly. This may be faithful to Le Carre's novel, but the screenplay, cowritten by the author, is, on the whole, unsatisfying in its conclusion.

Performances, both in front of and behind the camera, are uniformly solid. Geoffrey Rush is always a pleasure to watch and he gives nuance and dimension to his Harry Pendel. Harry is not all he seems or says, but preserving his family and life are his reason for his deceptions. He is a good man who, in the end, must pay the price for trying to grab the gold ring.

Pierce Brosnan appears to being having one heck of a good time as the anti-Bond. His out-of-favor Andrew is cunning and underhanded enough to get his way. He is not beyond using Harry's misinformation for his own gain, even feathering his own nest with millions of dollars of espionage funds. Brosnan comes across as sexy and sleazy at the same time.

The rest of the cast is made up by a bevy of talented actors, from Curtis and Gleeson to Leanor Varela as Harry's disfigured (from the Noriega days) secretary Martha, keeping the supporting cast close to the central action. There is also a plethora of small and cameo performances, including Catherine McCormack as Andrew's foreign service lover, Francesca, Jon Polito as a deceitful banker and Harry's supposed friend, and Dylan Baker as a gung ho US Army general. Playwright Harold Pintner plays the pivotal role as Harry's dead Uncle Bennie, who appears to the tailor at critical times, advising his nephew to give up his dangerous life.

Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot gives the film a lush, crisp look that has a coolness belying the heat and humidity of the Panama location. As you would expect from a story about a tailor, costuming, by Maeve Paterson, is exceptional, especially the suits of Harry's design and the casual suavity of Brosnan's attire.

"The Tailor of Panama" had me for the bulk of the film, but it's turn from whimsy to drama left me out in the cold. I give it a B-.

Laura:
Andy Osnard (Pierce Brosnan, "The World Is Not Enough") has just about used up the good will of MI6 when he's assigned to Panama to keep an eye on British interests in the Canal.  In order to gain contacts and information, Andy ferrets out Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush, "Quills"), an ex-convict with a Saville Row front in "The Tailor of Panama."

Adapted from the John le Carre novel by the author, director John Boorman ("The General") and Andrew Davies, "The Tailor of Panama is a cheeky lark about an immoral agent playing colleagues, superiors and countries against each other to his own benefit while spinning an 'innocent' tailor into a duplicitous stew.  While family man Harry Pendel doesn't deserve Andy's blackmailing, he's susceptible to it because he's duped his wife along with his customers and is facing financial difficulties.  Harry's a decent fellow who remains loyal to  anti-Noriega freedom fighters Marta (Leonor Varela, TV's "Cleopatra"), who was brutally disfigured, and Mickie Abraxas (Brendan Gleeson, "The General") now a broken down alcoholic.  Yet he uses these two to concoct a story about "The Silent Opposition," a group purportedly arming up to defend the Panamanian President's selling of the Canal to a) Japan, b) France or c) China/Taiwan.

Andy's bs detector is on, but he figures Pendel's story will be bought. It is, and soon offers in the millions rain down from the U.S. via Osnard's boss Cavendish (Jonathan Hyde).  That hasn't stopped Osnard from attempting to also get at Harry via his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), an American who just happens to work for U.S. Government interests in the Canal with unshakeable loyalty.  She's already sensed something amiss with Harry, though, and goes on the offensive.  Meanwhile, Harry's make-believe has caused events to take such a dramatic turn that he's shaken to his core.

"The Tailor of Panama" works wonderfully in its playful setup right up through the beginning of an American invasion of Panama City (played for yucks and getting them!).  Deceit is everywhere, from Harry's seemingly sympathetic banker (Jon Polito, "Stuart Little") calling in a loan to naive Cavendish's handling of the U.S.  Osnard plays hard and fast to bed British diplomat attache Francesca (Catherine McCormack, "Braveheart"). Harry amusingly gets advice from Uncle Benny (Harold Pintner), the deceased Jewish Uncle who set him up in Panama.

The film goes into a nose dive, however, as the two leads get into serious business trying to outmaneuver one another.  There's no satisfaction in the wrapup, in which the (marginally) 'good' guy barely squeezes out of harm's way as corruption still reigns.

Rush gives another delightful performance as the put upon Pendel, whether he's chalking up a suit pattern, making breakfast for his kids or trying to keep one step ahead of Osnard.  He gains audience empathy as a man deserving the second chance Uncle Benny provided.  Brosnan has a ball turning his suave Bond agent sideways with malicious glee and his is a fun performance to watch.  Gleeson is odd casting as a Panamanian rebel, but he takes ownership of the character and makes us believe he's a Central American hero destroyed by his own fighting spirit.  Jamie Lee Curtis brings little to her role as the bewildered wife in a lackluster performance.  Get your first screen glimpse of the boy cast as Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, as Harry and Louisa's son Mark.

The film, shot on location in Panama by cinematographer by Philippe Rousselot ("Remember the Titans"), looks sweatily slick.  Edit ting is comical while the film remains in hi jinx mode.  Bush family supporters will have their noses tweaked.

"The Tailor of Panama" is best when it's shaken, not stirred.

B-

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