The Tailor of Panama

(John Boorman, USA/Ireland, 2001)


John Boorman, who has made terrific films like Point Blank (1967), Excalibur (1981), Deliverance (1972) and The General (1998) all across the globe over the past thirty five years, is these days a rather underrated director. His films have always juggled extremes: on the one hand, a grand, wise, sweeping mythic vision of nature and nations and history; and on the other hand, a rather childlike sense of wonder. He once again manages to mix urbane observations with low wit in his handsome adaptation of John Le Carré's The Tailor of Panama.

Boorman is one of popular cinema's great eccentrics. His films never fail to invent some unlikely combination of genres and topics. His viewpoint always manages to be unexpected and playful. Who else but Boorman, in his autobiographical Hope and Glory (1987), could have shown the horrors of war via the madly delighted fantasies of a lonely child?

As his immense skill as a storyteller and craftsman has grown – making him the guardian of a lost classicism in filmmaking – his projects have, paradoxically, become harder to finance within the industry. The handsomely adapted The Tailor of Panama is something he proudly regards as a subversive entertainment.

A question that is often asked of Le Carré these days is: how can somebody keep inventing spy fiction after the end of the Cold War, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall? His answer, in The Tailor of Panama, seems to be that, quite simply, there is political skullduggery still going on, slyly, behind the facades of embassies and government agencies.

But Le Carré, doubtless urged on by Boorman, also gives the secret scenarios of the New World Order a special twist. Now, in the world of mass media, when all the processes of power are supposedly so transparent, it turns out that a lie, a story, an image, can have just as much effect on the state of things as a real insurgency or counter-insurgency.

So this is an espionage story for the postmodern, post-Berlin Wall age. Like the director himself, all the characters have two faces, two sides – and secrets to hide. Osnard (Pierce Brosnan, cleverly cast against type) is a somewhat disgraced British agent sent to Panama to watch over any possible dealings involving future ownership of the Canal. He decides to enlist the help of meek Harry (Geoffrey Rush), whose job as a tailor gives him access to all levels of society.

Harry, who has a criminal past that he hides even from his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis), has no choice but to oblige. So he starts spinning stories to Osnard, based on people he knows such as the ex-revolutionaries Abraxas (Brendan Gleason) and Marta (Leonor Varela). And whether or not Osnard knows he is being played for a sucker, he sends the stories on to his superiors, topped with his own, inimitable spin.

The whole plot of The Tailor of Panama hinges on the gradual escalation of such fanciful ruses as they pass from one operator to the next. Boorman has commented that the film could well have been titled Secrets and Lies. And although much of the film is driven by clever dialogue, Boorman has a fine eye for interior and exterior settings that add colour and irony to these minute power games and transactions.

Against this tale of political intrigue which steadily becomes more and more outlandish, Boorman poses a personal story: the crisis of Harry and Louisa's marriage, and the effects of his subterfuge on those who care most for him.

One of the oddest features of Boorman's work – endearing to fans, irritating to detractors – is a very British sense of humour that veers from urbane to twee to downright vulgar. The Tailor of Panama, in its middle stretch, becomes one of his most overtly comic films.

It is a more successful political satire than, for instance, Wag the Dog (1997). A deliciously broad moment of anti-Americanism is a homage to Kubrick's caricature of the military in Dr Strangelove (1964). Other gags – such as a scene where Harry and Osnard jiggle on a vibrating bed in a seedy brothel while discussing the balance of world power – have a touch of Benny Hill.

Mercifully, there are some subtler tricks up Boorman's sleeve. Fixing on the theme of duality, Boorman divides everything in the movie: Harry's office with its secret spaces; the hilarious gap between what is said of Abraxas and what is simultaneously shown; Marta's half-disfigured face; even the city of Panama itself, with its colourful festivities covering the social wounds of the past.

Handling what has become a quite old-fashioned genre, Boorman gives proceedings a deliberately nostalgic air, complete with references to Casablanca (1942) and – naturally, since Brosnan is present – James Bond. Ultimately, it is a minor but enjoyable piece, impeccably constructed and beautifully acted.

As the perverse, manipulative devil at the centre of what is surely Boorman's most sexually-obsessed film, Brosnan has a ball; his creepy scenes with Curtis are especially effective. Rush begins his part in a rather tiresome, twitchy, histrionic mode, but scales down to something touchingly human by the end. Boorman's little extra for the audience – not something that could have come from Le Carré's pen – is the running cameo by Harold Pinter as Uncle Benny, the apparition from the rag trade that advises Harry at every turn.

MORE Boorman: Where the Heart Is, Beyond Rangoon

© Adrian Martin August 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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